Once the biological alarm goes off and the need to have a child is overpowering, women often turn to their friends and family for advice.  If you fall into that category, you should know that, although friends and family mean well, they’ll likely have ulterior motives: mothers want grandchildren to spoil, siblings and friends want playmates for their own kids, and everyone will coo with the possibility of babysitting.  In fact, if you’re happily married and financially set, every member of your inner circle will be more than pleased to support your decision to have a child.  They’ll go on about how adorable babies are and how much help they’re willing to give you, and they might even throw in some of the uncomfortable aspects of becoming a mother – like childbirth, sleepless nights, and disciplinary issues – just to sound like their advice is subjective.  But don’t consume it like gospel, though, because, unless they’re YOU, no one can tell you what your life will be like once you’ve added a child.

Children change your life.  Understand before you hide the birth control that every minute of every day will be different than any you’ve experienced.  Understand, too, that your husband (or Significant Other if you prefer a more generic term) will likely resume his normal routine shortly after the baby’s brought home, and you will be expected to assume a large portion of the general care and feeding.  He’ll offer – and you’ll love him that much more for it – and he may even fumble with a few diapers and bottles in the beginning, but eventually he’ll become distant as he helplessly watches you become consumed with motherhood.

The First 3 Years
Forget about casual dining, passionate sex, and any hobbies you may have had, because the motherhood thing is 24/7.  When baby’s awake, you’ll either be feeding it, bathing it, clothing it, changing it, entertaining it, or passing it off to someone else to do the same.  Once baby’s sleeping, you’ll rush to cook or eat or clean in preparation for the next feeding or, God forbid, visits from friends or family.  Your home will be in constant disarray, and feelings of inadequacy will sneak in as you start to realize that taking care of a house, a husband, and a baby is a lot to expect from one person.  Fortunately, it’s much easier to take care of a child who hasn’t yet learned to move, so you can ease in to motherhood slowly.

Once out of infancy, children learn to walk, talk, run, jump, climb, throw, and argue at light speed.  Ever seen a mother and child fighting in a grocery or department store and thought to yourself, “I would never speak to my child like that!?”  Well, think again.  Children this age are demanding, and your patience will wear thin more often than you think.  Of course, the relationship you have with your child depends on how much time you spend together, but there are solid arguments both for and against each option.  If you keep the child home, you’ll eventually start speaking only in “Teletubbie” and he’ll likely have difficulty interacting with other children (as if two- and three-year-olds really play nice, anyway).  If you send the child to daycare, he’ll develop better social skills, but he’ll also bring home a different minor illness every other week, which means you’ll have to take time off work to visit the doctor, run to the pharmacy, administer the medication, and monitor the illness.

In your spare time, you’ll need to work on your relationship with baby’s new Daddy, because the man who shares your bed won’t understand the changes in you.  You’ll be exhausted around the clock, and you’ll likely end each day smelling like baby powder or formula, which won’t help you “get in the mood.”  It’s during these first years that you begin to lose touch with other adults, and this includes your spouse.  You won’t feel like having sex, your time will be consumed by baby, and your husband will get the short end of the stick.  Not only that, friendships you’ve forged over a lifetime may be lost because you’ll simply not have the strength to leave the house.

Thus begins the bond between mother and child, and you’ll not let him forget it for the rest of his life.

Pre-K and Elementary School
Adult contact makes a curtain call when kids reach school age.  The down side, however, is that most of the adults you run into at PTA meetings, open houses, school carnivals, and pee-wee league games are parents fresh out of the toddler boondoggle themselves and are, therefore, largely unable to carry on an intellectual, adult conversation.  While their children are learning how to follow directions, interact socially, and behave in a school environment, parents begin learning how to compare themselves to other parents.

There are people out there who eat, sleep, and breathe solely for their children, and there are those who don’t smother and allow their kids to be kids.  I have had the privilege of knowing dozens of parents who fall into both categories, and the indisputable common ground shared by all is that none of us knew what we were doing on any given day.

The most critical period in a child’s life is when they start defining an identity for themselves, and they’ll experiment with different personalities until they land on one that suits them.  Whether these experiments center on clothing, language, friendships, food, or something else, it’s your responsibility as a parent to help your child learn to make reasonable decisions.  Unfortunately, every child is different, every situation is different, and how you handle things will depend on your own mood, temperament, and level of patience.

You can talk with your spouse until you’re hoarse about discipline, scholastic expectations, and the boundaries that you’ll set for your child, but little of that discussion will matter when you’re hit dead-on.  You’ll find that House Rules simply don’t apply to the unexpected, and it’s nearly ALL unexpected.  Say, for instance, your angel throws a rock through the neighbor’s window or shouts an obscenity at her teacher or builds a flame-thrower in the backyard with the grill lighter and a can of WD-40.  What do you do?  Since there are no simple answers, don’t expect them.

Junior High and High School
Menstruation, nocturnal emission, style, dating, music, money, sex, STDs, pregnancy, phone, money, attitude, friends, enemies, independence, driver’s license, and more money.

My parents bought me luggage for graduation, and now I know why.

* * *

If you’re serious about having children, I will tell you there are rewards, but you have to spend time with your kids to recognize them.  Most are fleeting moments, like watching your daughter succeed at something she’s worked hard at.  Some will hit you later, like noticing your shy and awkward boy somehow became a charismatic and charming young man.  Others become memories that last a lifetime, like waking up on Mother’s Day to a smiling child holding a bouquet of freshly-picked dandelions and wildflowers they’d found in the neighbor lady’s yard.  Children will surprise and delight you if you let them, and there’s nothing quite like seeing ordinary things through the inquisitive eyes of a child.

Parenting never stops once you take the plunge, and it’s a wearisome and thankless job that few women are truly ready for.  It’s not that people are financially and psychologically unprepared, it’s that they don’t know what they’re getting into.  Too many new parents assume the role without honestly considering the realities, and their failed efforts result in divorce, spousal abuse, child neglect or abuse, and a host of other discouraging societal problems.  Although it’s romantic to imagine having a baby of your own, remind yourself they’re a lot like puppies: cute and fun to snuggle, but they piddle on the floor from time to time, and they inevitably grow up.  There will be struggles, disagreements, and unpredictable situations, and the only way parents can make it through is by handling it all together the best they can, and by taking one day at a time.

September 5, 2002