Friends (especially those without kids) often ask ‘So what’s it like being a father now?’. Instead of the customary ‘It’s been wonderful and rewarding, and the best decision we have ever made,’ they are surprised when they hear me say ‘Well, it’s been a huge change and we are tired all the time, and some days I don’t even know how we get through the day.’
‘But it’s all worth it in the end, of course,’ they blurt out, trying to defend the cliché of the defeated but smiling parent at the end of the day. At some level, I think they are terrified themselves about this unknown entity called parenthood – a seeming inevitability to some of us, like starting school or a new job, and they want to be reassured that this scary new place is actually going to be okay.
Well, as a first time parent I just want to tell you this – that parenting is hard. That’s it. Nothing to soften the blow, no buts to follow, parenting is tough. It is almost taboo to paint a real picture about parenting but I can only tell you with measured honesty what my experience has been like.
There is no exam to sit to be a parent, no four year preparatory course in university where you graduate with a Bachelor of Parenting (can one be a bachelor and a parent?). Somehow we are expected to make the biggest leap of our lives naturally and instinctively, without advice or help or training. God knows how we have done this generation after generation but let me tell you now – raising a child is hard, and it often requires a village. A small town, in fact.
Having a child is about the biggest life change you will ever experience, because:
1. Your complete routine changes.
Everything, and I mean everything now is done with consideration for your little ones. As Michael McIntyre, the famous stand-up comedian once said – ‘Things that weren’t even things, are now things.’
Leaving the house (once a mindless endeavour) is now a coordinated thirty minute affair – dressing the baby, dressing yourself, making sure that there are enough diapers in the diaper bag, making sure that there is enough food in the food bag, trying to get the cursed baby stroller (which requires a degree in engineering to open) to open with only one hand and then fighting off an angry tyrant who does not want to be strapped down in it.
As a parent, even the places you can go to are limited to whether or not they are safe and comfortable for your child – i.e. does the place have baby chairs, is there a changing room in the event of a poo-nami, will the kitchen microwave your baby food or offer you hot water to make its milk, and most importantly, is there alcohol (mostly for you, and a little for the baby bottle to help them sleep teeheehee).
2. Say goodbye to sleep.
Uninterrupted sleep, that is. Say goodbye to casual lie-ins on a Saturday morning after a long workweek and a boozy Friday evening, in fact say goodbye to any regular sleep at all. Say hello to 3am and 5am wakes and eyeshoppingbags and your zombification (without the messy biting) and a whole new level of caffeine dependence. Sleep was the luxury that you took for granted before your child was born – no matter how much of an insomniac you were, it will never ever compare to how sleep deprived you will be after you have a child.
If you are pre-children and you have friends with kids, be prepared to hear them talk about how tired they are for the next 18 years or so.
The body, mercifully, in all of God’s wisdom, somehow adapts and if all else fails, you can always have your eighth cup of coffee for the day. Which doesn’t help your –
Be prepared to be a whole new level of worried for your child. This is especially true for first-time parents who are looking at their bundle of joy right after birth, wondering how on earth they ended up here.
No amount of books read or courses attended will ever prepare you for the real thing, and it is only the support of experienced family and friends and the Maternal Child Health Nurse that will get you through those tough first few months.
It is always a time of fragility and self-doubt (for the mother especially) so remember to always be supportive and kind. (I am looking at you, Breastfeeding Nazis). Listen and be patient with each other’s fears rather than minimising or arguing, and get all the help you can. It is a massive period of transition for you and your partner and it should be treated as such.
Slowly and surely, your confidence will grow as you ‘learn on the job’ but learn to ask for, and receive help as well. Parenting is NOT intuitive and not knowing what to do does NOT make you a bad parent – it is a skill to be learnt and developed like everything else.
The first 3 months is spent worrying whether or not you will accidentally kill your child, the next 18 years will be spent preventing yourself from wilfully doing it. I say it tongue fully in cheek of course, but your affection to your child will be tested by the 24 hours a day you spend with it, and also the many battles of independence and obedience you will fight for the rest of your lives. This is punctuated, of course, by the silly moments, the cheeky grins, the foot-shuffling apologies, the moments of laughter and love that make it worthwhile.
The best decision we ever made as parents was to put Lexie into childcare 3 times a week. This has two benefits – she has definitely grown in leaps and bounds socially, mentally (she was getting so bored at home and who can blame her? I fall asleep listening to myself sometimes) and also immunologically (I think we need to install some kind of antivirus into Lexie 1.0).
The other benefit is this – allowing yourself time away from your child will also make you a better parent in the times that you do spend with your child. One of the big things you lose as a parent is your sense of self – suddenly everything revolves around your child but one thing we forget is to care for the carer, that we matter too.
Our rest, our physical and mental health, doing things that recharge our energy levels – those things are important, and can so easily be lost in society’s long-held adoration of the all-sacrificing parent and the worshipped child.
What creeps into a relationship when you are not rested is resentment, that little imp that insidiously melts the bonds of relationship between you and your partner. Suddenly a ledger springs up about who has spent more hours with the child, whose turn it is to do the twilight patting and shushing the baby to sleep, who did the last five nappy changes.
A date night while a baby sitter comes in for a few hours or time alone while your mother holds the fort is all that is required for you to exhale and then face afresh the journey that is parenting.
So why be a parent at all, you wonder? I am writing this post for the third time, that’s how quickly I have vacillated in my thoughts about parenting.
Actually, the self-interrogation about your wisdom to start a family could change even from moment to moment, when your smiling toothless angel suddenly becomes the rabid Tantrum Monster because you wouldn’t let her play with your wallet (you have noticed all these suspicious credit card purchases of toys from Babies R Us).
Parenting for the first time will be this dichotomy of loving your child and yearning to have things the way they were. Parents will know the duality of wanting the day to end already when you have been tested by the boundless energy of your little one, and then cooing over their photos and missing them the moment they go to bed.
It is one of the biggest life changes you will ever face and you can either see your child as a ball-and-chain imprisoning you or you can choose to see them as the anchor that keeps you grounded. (Even the word itself carries the dual meaning of being rooted, or of delinquent punishment!)
‘Yes, parenting’s tough, but you wouldn’t change it for the world, right?’ asks the hopeful friend again. Well, truthfully, it is about the most seismic shift we have had as a couple and some parts of your old selves will have to be put on hold or die completely in order for these new parts of you to come alive.
You may not fall immediately in love with your child, and that’s okay. You are still getting to know each other in those first few months (or years, even). But soon that all-crying all-pooping mess will have a temperament and personality of its own, to be moulded by nature and our nurture – a tiny version of you, our legacy in this world.
It is at once exasperating, exhilarating, exhausting and expanding – your patience will grow as will your ability to love and forgive, you will learn how to not to sweat the small things (like milk posits or saliva stains on your shirt or eating things your child has dropped to the floor), you will also become more assertive as you shape your child to your will.
A whole new world you never even knew existed will open up – suddenly your conversations shift to baby diapers and poonamis and sleep-training and strollers and childcare and skin creams and clothes. Your emails are now peppered with sales at Baby Buntings and invitations to Pregnancy and Child Expos and your Facebook feeds eerily pump you with baby products. If you are not mindful, you risk alienating your friends who are not parents with all your child-rearing talk.
One of the best things about parenting, if you’ll allow it, is an opportunity to pick at your cynical heart – children have a way of making the hardest hearts kneel to their eye-level – they invite you to be playful, silly, curious and to look at the world afresh again.
Someone once described their child as a walking piece of their heart that is beating outside of their chest, and the older Lexie gets the truer I find it – I am in love with her and my heart grows as she does. Just be prepared, however, for this uncaged part of your heart to be picked apart, bruised, ache, rage, swell with pride and burst with love as only a parent’s heart can.