People tell new parents that nothing really prepares you for parenthood and they are right. No matter how you earn the title of “Mom” or “Dad,” there is not a single instruction manual sufficient for helping us figure out the daily challenges of attempting to successfully turn little humans into functional larger humans ready to take on the world. While this is not an exhaustive list, because it would take at least ten years to explain what I’ve learned in ten years of parenting and even that wouldn’t be enough time, these are some of the biggest hard-learned lessons.
- You have to learn to expect and accept the unexpected. Clearly this was a lesson that we learned at the very beginning of parenthood when both of our kids became unexpected blessings, but these lessons continued from the moment we brought them home. When our daughter was born I imagined a perfect bonding experience as she naturally understood the concept of breastfeeding and the beautiful quiet of mother feeding child. Instead, my daughter rejected my body and made it pretty clear early on that she preferred bottles and had no interest in bonding with her mother while eating. I prepared for the same kind of rejection when our son was born and instead got a baby who fully understood how to eat but refused to learn how to sleep properly. We’ve had unexpected issues potty training, a series of ear infections that miraculously ended before our son needed to get tubes, had to explain why a dog had to be put to sleep, dealt with two very different reactions to the trauma of a cross-country move, had a broken arm on vacation, and the list goes on and on. Nothing will ever go exactly as planned, and as long as you’ve planned for that inevitability, you at least lower the chances that you will lose your mind.
- You discover that “my kids will never do something like that” is a lie. Every parent has been there. I remember Jeff and I frequently looking at each other during our 20s when we would see some poor parents struggling with their child who was throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of a store. Then I had a daughter who refused to get into her carseat in a Lowe’s parking lot because I wouldn’t buy her a lawn decoration. And then I had a son who screamed his fool head off in a resort parking lot while we were on vacation in Orlando because he had gotten past the point of reasonable exhaustion and he no longer knew how to function. And while I have to admit that I do still occasionally have those thoughts when I’m out in public, more often than not I try to give young, struggling parents a smile, telling them that it gets better. Unfortunately for me, I often find myself yelling at one of my kids shortly after giving this reassurance to another parent because my kids are now making some kind of poor decision that needs correcting. What can I say? They’re kids.
- You realize just how gross kids really are and you find ways to laugh about it because laughing is better than crying. Seriously though, I never knew how many different shades of poop there were until we had kids. I may be convinced that the neon green caused by perfectly ripened kiwi may be the worst. Or blueberries. Scratch the kiwi, it’s definitely blueberries. And then there are the creations that start to reek because they brought their fairy potion inside and didn’t tell you. Or once your son learns that it is perfectly acceptable to use the great outdoors as a restroom while you are camping, he then decides that the tree in the front yard is also an acceptable place to drop his pants and pee. Yep, it’s a good thing kids are cute. I believe God keeps them cute until we decide we can’t live without them, right before they turn into hormonal monsters. Thankfully, we’re not quite there yet.
- You will work overtime to correct your parents’ mistakes only to make more of your own. We all know the things that we want to do differently from our parents. Even those of us who had great parents have things we want to do differently. And while psychology tells us that we will often parent the way that we were raised, experience tells us that there will always be things that we want to do differently. Some things are easier than others. My parents had a strict rule about not dating until we were 16 and while I did my best to be the obedient eldest daughter (even though my boy-crazy self desperately wanted to date several different boys), my sisters were a little sneakier. And while Jeff and I have briefly talked about the rules for dating (which is looming in our future) we’ve also decided that arbitrary age rules are less effective than open communication and making sure that both kids have enough confidence that they don’t feel the need to date before they are ready. We’ve applied the same rules to the media that we let them consume, which has also kept the lines of communication open. When we tell our kids “no” to a book or movie, we don’t throw ratings in their faces. Instead we talk about what is and is not appropriate about what they want to watch. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had massive screw-ups, often related to things we watched when we were their age, and our decision to not use age as a determining factor doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to screw up something during the teen dating years, but we’re working on it, with the help of friends who are fumbling alongside us.
- You will ask yourself what you did wrong. I find myself asking this question when bratty, spoiled behavior comes out of nowhere. I tell myself that they are kids and that they get into moods, but then I ask what I ever did to give them the idea that it was ok to have that attitude. Or I ask myself that question when my daughter falls apart over what I perceive to be the littlest thing or when our son just won’t take “no” for an answer. Where did I go wrong? And the answer is, I don’t know. Chances are it’s not me, or at least not entirely. It could just be the moment or a phase or the influence of peers who are also going through something in their own lives. The best I can do is pray for guidance and believe that God will whisper wisdom to me and guide my children’s footsteps.
- But hopefully more often you will ask yourself what you did right. While we get along with our siblings now, Jeff and I struggled with sibling fights through both of our childhoods. Our kids may have the occasional sibling fight, but for the most part they have been best friends since the day our son was born. They are both caring, loving, compassionate individuals who genuinely want to make the world a better place. They are creative and innovative and constantly want to learn more about the world around them. And when we watch them in action, we often look at each other and wonder how they became those things. Have we really been good stewards of the gifts that God has given them, or are we just lucky? Because 75% of the time, our kids are awesome and fun to be around. Of course, we’re still waiting for the full force of puberty, so I may need to return to this particular lesson in a couple of years to remind myself that, at one point, we usually believed our children to be delightful.
- When you screw up, admitting you were wrong goes a long way. This has been a really important lesson for me and I try to hold myself to it on a daily basis. Look, we parents screw up. I overreact, I yell, I allow bad days to follow me home, and there are times I’m really not on top of my game as a parent. I was the introverted kid who internalized all criticism from the adults in my life, whether or not they meant for me to do so. I still carry some of those scars, so for me it was incredibly important that from day one I own up to my kids when I am wrong or when my reactions to their behavior are more severe than necessary. I do my best to explain the situation in terms that they will understand and then we move on. That has gone a long way in improving my relationships with both of my kids and I hope that it reminds them that I’m not only human, but I’m a human they can depend on to be honest and open with them as well.
- When it’s in their best interest, if you stand your ground it will eventually pay off. And this is hard. But they don’t need that treat or toy or experience. You can take away electronics and they will find something else to do. You can impose limits and they’ll be ok. Sometimes it becomes a battle of wills, but in the end they will find something better to do with their time and your money and they will have learned some important lessons along the way. Just because our kids may stomp away saying that we are bad parents doesn’t mean that we are actually bad parents. In fact, sometimes it may mean that we’re doing something right.
- But sometimes you need to give in. We walk a fine line between teaching our kids important lessons and giving in to their whims, but sometimes it’s ok, especially when it’s rare and it’s in the best interest of the entire family. Our son is a walking Snickers commercial. Seriously, hangry is a real state-of-being and once he is past the point of just hungry, we all pay the price. Two years ago, our Epcot day during our weeklong trip to Disney was endangered because delays got us to the park just as his hunger started to set in. Instead of getting to eat at one of the many fun places in the park, we had to go straight to the American portion of the park to make sure he got the mac and cheese that he wanted because he was too hungry to consider any other options. And as much as we didn’t want to give in, we did, because we knew that the rest of the day would be ruined if he didn’t get food into his system ASAP. It was in everyone’s best interest to feed the beast and the rest of the day was a lot of fun, even if we had to bypass China and Mexico and eat a burger and fries instead.
- The dreams are just that, dreams, but when you let them go you can discover that different doesn’t mean lesser; It’s just different. I wanted a prima ballerina. Instead I got a skirt wearing, dirt digging little girl who would eventually prefer having soccer balls kicked at her and shooting baskets to a new pair of ballet shoes. In the process of that discovery, I learned more about myself as a person and as a mother and I learned to let go and let her be true to herself. I spent the first four years of our son’s life convinced that he was going to be only two years apart from his sister for their entire school career. Instead we made the decision to redshirt him before starting Kindergarten and he went from a happy follower to a confident, strong, positive leader. Twenty years ago I believed that by this time in my life I would have convinced Jeff to take me back to Europe at least once. Instead, we’re on our third camper and our family is doing our best to see the country, giving our kids experiences that we never dreamed we would when we were childless newlyweds packing up our tent for a cross-country trip to Yellowstone National Park. Sometimes the loss of dreams become genuine disappointments in the lives that we end up leading. Sometimes curveballs get thrown our way that causes life to just suck. But even in those moments, I desperately try to hold onto the idea that life isn’t less, it’s just different. And moments like giving into a spiraling tornado of emotions and losing your cool while sitting in a bank parking lot and dropping an f-bomb in front of your toddler daughter while talking on the phone with your unsuspecting husband don’t define you. (Don’t judge. I know that I’m a forgiven child of God.) You may just have to keep digging to find a glimmer of optimism in something different from the dream that was there before.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the many things that I’ve learned since our daughter’s birth, but these are some of the many big lessons that I have to keep coming back to over and over again. And as our kids get older and as the challenges of parenting change with them, I know that we will keep learning more lessons as we go. Thankfully, our friends who have walked the path before us are more than willing to share their advice. The friends who are walking with us are more than willing to commiserate. And I promise to be there for the friends who are walking behind us, learning from our mistakes.
Because while nothing can truly prepare you for this thing called parenthood, we really can’t do it alone. It really does take a village.
So village, above is what I’ve learned. I’m far from wise and I’m sure your kids are not like mine. But maybe if we combine all of the lessons that all of us have learned over the years, we won’t have to worry about being handed another parenting book by some well-meaning soul, and that’s something I can live with.