What Parents Might Not Be Telling You
When you are about to have a baby, the floodgates of warnings and omens break forth. I’ve never heard so many “just you wait”’s in my life. Have trouble sleeping around your pregnant belly? “Just you wait till you have a cluster feeding baby.” Struggle getting dinner together on a regular basis? “Just you wait till you’ve got a clingy little one who wants all your attention.”
Even when you do finally experience these things for the first time, you still haven’t arrived. That’s when all the one-upmanship begins. “Your labor was six hours? Wow, that’s nothing. Mine was 24 hours.” Or—“Your baby only sleeps in 3 hour stretches? Mine would barely make it two.” Or— “Your baby is a fitful napper? Just wait till she’s a toddler and refuses to nap at all.”
Alongside these conversations, I began noticing all the Facebook statuses: “Toddler destroyed the bathroom today…” “Haven’t slept in days…” “Husband finally rescued me so I could get away from these monsters…” There’s often a note of sarcasm and playfulness in these statements, but oy. It’s still discouraging. It made me wonder what I had gotten myself into. I struggled not to envision years of frustration, stress, and sleeplessness, stretching before me like a brooding dark cloud.
Where was the joy?
Well, that’s the secret—the secret all the voices on social media or in-person conversations weren’t offering me. It’s the secret that you may not have realized just yet, because those are the voices you’ve been listening to.
So I want to be the one to announce loudly, for all to hear: HAVING A KID IS FUN. PARENTING IS FUN. BABIES ARE FUN.
I’ll explain: yes, there is pain and discomfort. Labor isn’t the easiest thing in the world (to put it very, very nicely). And when that little newborn enters the world screaming, life changes forever. That baby will demand time and attention you didn’t know you had. He or she will take away hours of sleep that you previously enjoyed, fill your arms and prevent you from getting “important things” done. He or she will cry when least convenient, refuse to nap, learn to do obnoxious things to get your attention. There may be health scares, temper tantrums, moments of distress, fear, or frustration.
But parenting is still fun. Because those are just the negative moments in a whole world of sweet, positive things. When that little newborn enters the world, they love you with their whole heart—depend on you, love you, enjoy spending time with you. That little one will want to nestle in your arms and cuddle. He or she will smile their first smile into your face, utter their first word in an effort to communicate with you. Selfishly, it’s an incredible thing. That baby means you won’t be alone. You have a companion: someone to go on walks with, someone to watch the evening news with, someone to sing songs to. And unselfishly—the fact that your life can help produce life, that you can help bring into the world and nurture a new, life-bearing, creative, unique soul, is an unspeakable gift.
I know many grown parents who have cultivated strong relationships with their children through the years. And when these parents speak of their children, it isn’t with annoyance or frustration. When their children are grown, they become friends and enjoy their time together. The strength of these relationships seems to stem from the fact that over the years, the parents developed a healthy understanding of 1) their responsibility to their children—to serve and to discipline them—and 2) of their children’s autonomy and personhood.
It’s a fragile dance, one that often seems to difficult to balance. These parents know that, from the moment a child is born (or even before), their life will be one of service and sacrifice toward that child, helping them grow into a responsible and kind human being. But these parents also know that this does not involve bowing to a child’s every whim and fancy; they understand that a child’s raw material requires careful nurturing—and that requires discipline. We must help inculcate habits of virtue by developing incentives that draw a child toward the Good, teaching them the right reaction to various pains and pleasures. This is part of our service toward our children—not just giving them a candy to get them to stop whining, not just turning on the TV every time they bother us; but rather, teaching them to love what is good, to exercise self-control, to know what is prudent and right. This involves work. But the result is often a relationship strengthened by love and a desire to do what is best for the child, even when it’s troublesome and frustrating.
The balancing side of this is that these parents don’t see their children as playthings or passive objects. They care less about their children’s grades or extracurricular achievements than they do about their character. When their child expresses a desire to try something new, they’re encouraging—but they don’t pressure him or her into some pursuit that they will not enjoy. These parents see their children as creative, exciting, unique human beings, and enjoy watching them grow in their own way, in their own time. When their children are young, they don’t worry about what others think, about whether their child is “advanced” or not, about whether they’ll be a straight-A student. They don’t try to cover up the imperfect moments, or wish their kids would finally be old enough for daycare, old enough to go to school, old enough to finally move out. On the flip side, they don’t “vent” about their children constantly in public forums, complaining about their problems and issues. They recognize the fact that—just as it isn’t appropriate to do that in regards to their husbands, or sisters, or parents-in-law—it’s not appropriate to do with their children, who are also people with feelings and dignity. As their children grow into adulthood, they show deference and respect to the maturing person before them. They see that their children do not belong to them—rather, they see each child as a gift, one to be tended, but also respected.
My grandmother once told my mother that “we raise our firstborns for other people”; it’s a statement I now think about constantly, hoping and praying that I don’t fall prey to this temptation. But when we’re constantly posting about our lives online, it’s difficult not to feel this temptation. I want to share moments from my daughter’s life with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; what I don’t want is to use her to get accolades, praise, or sympathy from any or all of the above. Often—as with all things in life—it’s difficult to separate my motivations as I’m hitting “post.”
But I am trying, every day, to enjoy moments with her in all their sweetness before I even think about “sharing” them. To savor the times my daughter laughs or coos or starts to roll over. To talk to her when we go on walks, to read books with her, to cuddle with her—to see her little personality develop, her little will and opinions get stronger and more evident. To start praying for the days ahead when she’ll need discipline, encouragement, admonition. To be grateful that I get to be present for these sweet days—grateful that I get to be her mother, grateful that we get to spend life together from here on out. As I sink into each moment, I find myself having more fun than I ever thought I would. When she grins at me, I grin back. We laugh together—or more often at this point, I laugh at her, especially as she grows more opinionated and animated.
And despite all the negative social media posts, all the warnings, all the “just you wait”’s, I’m discovering that life with this baby girl is wonderfully fun. I am filled with awe at the fact that I got to help create a new life, and now get to watch that life develop and grow. I get to spend time with her, get to see her pursue her dreams and help her reach them.
The greatest challenge of the days ahead will be learning to strike a good balance between the above two things: between service and deference, love and respect, discipline and freedom. But I suspect—and hope—that if I continue to see this baby girl as a living breathing wonder, as a gift, it will help turn my heart towards that correct balance, and bring joy in the days to come.