“You know,” my friend told me, “I recently realized that I’ve been making it harder than necessary for myself.”
My friend’s newborn baby slept in her arms. Her toddler ran around with my children, happy to explore the mess of baby accessories. “Parenting, that is,” she clarified. “By trying to control everything.”
The kids shrieked and she craned her neck to try and see what they were up to. And then she forced herself to turn back toward me. “Like right now,” she added. “It’s really hard not to go and check and manage and all that.”
I nodded. “Yes, it’s a difficult lesson to learn–letting go of the expectation that we can control, well, anything to do with parenthood, really.”
“You’d think that the birth experience itself would be enough to teach us that,” I added, thinking of emergency C-Sections and forgotten birth plans and a long-ago day in the hospital. “It’s like a neon sign hanging right there over the threshold of parenthood, announcing ‘Leave Your Expectations at the Door.’”
My friend nodded. “Neon sign or no,” she said. “It’s hard to let go.”
And it is.
During the last stage of my first pregnancy, I could cite whole passages from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” by heart. I could tell you what to do in any case of birth-related emergency and point out the most up-to-date best practices in breastfeeding and pumping.
And in retrospect, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
My birth didn’t go according to plan. Breastfeeding didn’t go according to plan. Bonding didn’t go according to plan. Even those elements I expected to be complicated–the sleepless nights, the diaper changes, the bris –were much harder in real life than they were in my imagination. All the written accounts in the world couldn’t prepare me for the utter exhaustion, and the overwhelming emotions, that make the first months of parenting so difficult.
In retrospect, I could see that many of my negative emotions at the time didn’t stem from the difficulties themselves, but rather from the fact I (unrealistically) expected to control them better. Instead of simply handling every challenge as it came up, I had to struggle with my feelings of inadequacy and failure. These feelings didn’t reflect reality: They reflected the gap between reality and my expectations. But like my friend, I refused to let these expectations go, and made everything harder than necessary for myself.
Looking back, I want to reach out to the well-meaning expectant mother I used to be, the one who sat bowed over parenting books and checklists and birth plans, and swipe them all off her desk.
“You don’t need to know exactly what to expect,” I wish I could tell her. “You need to know what NOT to expect when you’re expecting.”
Don’t expect to feel like yourself in the weeks and months to come. Exhaustion and hormones are about to wreak havoc within you, and it’s OK. You don’t need to panic that there’s something wrong with you just because you’re out of focus, emotional and confused. Just go with the mood swings and wait them out (and it might be a good idea to apologize in advance to everyone in your life, so you won’t feel like you have to keep apologizing as you snap).
Don’t expect to be the perfect parent. You will overfeed/underfeed/overheat/under-dress your baby. You will miss a dirty diaper, put the onesie wrong, or hurt the child while you cut those tiny nails. You will place him somewhere, and only discover that he can roll when he’ll falls. And you will change her diaper, only to learn later that she was hungry, not wet. That’s normal. Accept it. You need to learn how to be a parent, and learning takes time. Learn from your mistakes and they won’t define you.
Don’t expect to feel bonding, love, or any other “natural” emotions you want to check off from your imaginary “mothers should feel” list. There is nothing wrong with you even if you don’t feel these emotions. Go out, talk to other mothers, read novels about parenthood. You’ll discover that different people feel different emotions. There is no such thing “natural feelings.” There are only the emotions that are natural to you.
Don’t expect to feel content all the time. Babies consume a lot of time and energy. And while they are cute and cuddly, they don’t provide the most scintillating intellectual company. Add that to the hormones and exhaustion, and you get a mixture of good and bad and so-so times. There will also be those days when you cry because you are so tired and the baby just won’t go to sleep. And there will be boring hours of rocking him or her ad infinitum. It’s normal.
Don’t expect parenting to simply fit into your current routines as a couple. When a child comes along, time and rest become your most precious resources, and you will have to figure out how to divvy them up in the most effective way. It’s no longer about what’s right and equal and fair: It’s about what works for you as a family unit. Like parenting itself, operating as a family is a learning process. So relax, communicate, and work through the kinks as they appear.
And most importantly, don’t expect to control what’s coming at you. There are surprises in store, and you’ll just have to deal with them as they come.
“You know,” I told my friend, as I thought back to those distant days and all they taught me, “it feels wrong that I know exactly when I’ll give birth this time, with the planned C-Section. There is something unnatural about knowing what to expect.”
The feeling that something was off stayed with me in the weeks to come. And than the hospital called and changed my delivery date, and now everything is as it should be – unexpected.