There are so many things you don't know when you become a parent. The knowledge gaps are different for everyone and depend on numerous things. There are small things that are kind of learn-as-you go, like feeding. Then there are larger things, like figuring out how to show a tantrum-throwing child unconditional positive regard while also disciplining them appropriately. I'm gentler with myself and my kids now, but there are things I wish I knew with my first kid, now that I have three.
In theory, I knew getting into this motherhood gig was going to be a doozy. I knew all about the potential for mom-guilt. Like everyone else, I'd heard the stories of older siblings who felt their parents were totally different for their younger siblings. I was raised by a mostly-single mother, who I worshiped, but who still had her flaws I swore I wouldn't pass on. (Spoiler alert: I'm totally passing them on.) However, I was in no way prepared for the complex emotional minefield that is motherhood. In fact, the reason I reel at the idea that my oldest child is 7 years old is because I still rarely feel as though I have any f*&king idea what I'm doing. Still.
I do know, however, that I know more now than I did seven years ago. My third and final child is coming up on their first birthday this month. As this seemingly huge milestone comes barreling down upon me, I'm struck by how I wish I could go back and hug the first-time mama I used to be. I'd hold her and quite possibly sing her a lullaby, or rock her to sleep, and tell her everything was going to be all right. I'd want to tell her the following things, that will make the ensuing hardships smoother for her.
That A Little Love Goes A Long Way
Discipline, yes. But love more. Don't worry if that baby understands your tone of voice when you say "no" as they reach for the electrical outlet again. (Spoiler alert: I actually read a parenting book that coached me on tone of voice.) Just show them that you love them. Radically.
That I Can (And Should) Listen To My Gut
There are so many times I wish I would've listened to my gut the first time around. Now that I have three children, I trust myself more and I honestly see the difference that self-trust has in my children's happiness.
If I had to choose, I would go back and listen to my gut instead of well-meaning but wrong people about sleep training (I wouldn't do it), feeding and supplementing (do what your body and baby are telling you, not random relatives or doctors), and touching my baby in the NICU (seriously, there was no medical risk for me to touch my baby, her need for human touch trumps well-meaning policy).
That My Random Relative Doesn't Know Best
Believe it or not, one particularly influential relative didn't even have children when I let him make me second guess myself and my parenting. His unsolicited, and frankly damn judgmental advice, caused me to question myself more times than I can count. While seeking or listening to advice is not necessarily a bad thing, what three children have taught me is that I get to choose whose advice I listen to. If I wouldn't ask their opinion about other things, I probably don't want their opinion on my parenting.
That You Should Always Stand Off To The Side When Changing A Diaper
The lesson of always standing off to the side when changing a diaper took a few wet shirts, a couple wet faces, and one particularly impressive projectile poop for me to learn. If I had known this at my first kid, I could've saved that beautiful carpet.
Related interior design tip? Baby poop brown does not go great on white carpet.
That Respite Care Makes Me A Better Parent
Our first child had a lot of birth and neonatal trauma. She had a hole in her lung at birth, spent five days in the NICU, was colicky, and would only sleep for 45 minute stretches. (Side note: I'm fairly certain we didn't help the sleep situation when we listened to doctors who told us if she doesn't wake up to eat every one or two hours, we should wake her up. I'm still pissed we listened.)
What seasoned-mom me would tell new-mom me is this: it's not only OK to let someone take your baby for several hours, it's essential. You need sleep, you need human connection, and you need to maintain your relationship. All of these things will make you a better parent. (Spoiler alert: people will stop asking to help you someday, and then you'll really need it.)
That Self-Care Is Mandatory
While taking my former self on a respite care break, I would remind her what she teaches sexual trauma survivors daily. You have to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others. If you don't, you'll both pass out.
That Parenting Is Social Justice Work
The theory that parenting and social justice work are intimately intertwined made sense, but it took me a while to put the balance into practice. At the beginning of my parenthood journey I was also just starting another leg of my career in sexual assault survivor advocacy. I would often be stretched so thin that I'd feel like I was letting the rape crisis center down, folx fighting against rape culture down, and my child and partner down.
What I've since realized is even if I can't make every vigil or fundraising event, raising my children to be the torch-bearers of consent culture is farther reaching than anything else I could be doing at bedtime.
That Trusting The Doctors And Questioning The Doctors Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Blind trust in anybody who isn't with your child every second of every day is probably not the best idea. You know your child even when they're telling you that you don't. Sometimes it's OK not to trust doctors who only know your child in two minute soundbites.
I'm not saying ignore medical advice. Hell, modern medical science has saved my and my children's lives many times. I am saying, however, that when your doctor is brushing off your concerns, find another doctor immediately. Don't doubt yourself.
We fought like hell to get one of my children evaluated when we started seeing signs of autism and sensory processing disorder. At first, however, we'd accept the pediatrician's lazily given assurances. There were countless times we heard, "She's too smart to be autistic. You must just not have good discipline practices."
That I Know My Kid Better Than Anyone
When someone tells you your child is "too smart" to be autistic, it's time to find another doctor. I knew something was amiss when she was 7 months old. I knew she needed something we didn't know how to give her. Though we asked for help, for answers, and for evaluation numerous times, we allowed medical and educational professionals to minimize our concerns. Now I know this is a pretty common story for parents with autistic kids. I wish we'd have taken a stronger stand sooner.
After my daughter's school refused yet another request for assessment, but were keeping her in the office all day and labeling her a problem child for biting other students, we finally scraped together the money to pay for an evaluation ourselves. (Side note: Schools must comply with a written request for evaluation, which we did not know at the time.) Once we finally had somebody who paid attention, we were able to get our daughter the help she (and we) desperately needed.
That I Can Ask For (And Deserve) Help
One of the hardest things my partner and I still have to learn is that it's OK to ask for help. I wish we'd have set the precedent when our first child was a baby. Through no fault of her own, our daughter was a difficult infant who was very uncomfortable most of the time. I think people felt overwhelmed with the idea of watching her alone, and I totally get that. However, I let family members and friends off the hook too easily when they declined to give us a desperately needed break. I shouldn't have internalized their fear of caring for her as proof that I was sensitive or dramatic, as several relatives intimated. We needed (and deserved) help.
That We Can (And Should) Go Outside More
It's hard when your first child has behavioral challenges that make going out in public nearly impossible. Now that our daughter has made so much progress, and we live in an amazingly beautiful area surrounded by nature, we need to be getting outside more. Not only does outside play give autistic kids the sensory diet they need, but it helps us all feel invigorated.
That I Actually Do Know What I'm Doing, Even When I Don't
Maybe no first-time parent knows what they're doing. Or maybe I was at a disadvantage because I allowed myself to be taken aback by an autistic kid with needs I never could've predicted. Who knows? But I know now that I was way too hard on myself. I wish I could tell first-time mom me, "You know what you're doing, girl! Trust the process. Trust yourself. You got this."
That It Is Always A Good Time To Say "I Love You"
I'm not sure when this happened, but somewhere along the line between a pregnancy in 2009 and the realities of life and caring for three children in 2017, I forgot to say "I love you."
Well, I say it sometimes. However, I need to say it all the time. As a child I remember craving to hear those precious words from my own mama. I worshiped and adored her. She was probably about average for parents of millennials in the amount of love she verbally expressed. But I craved so much more. I wanted no-holds-barred, gushy, effulgent, constant expressions of love (yes, I was that kid).
I know now what my mother was going through, because I haven't been the mom I would've needed. So, past me, listen up: it's always a good time to say "I love you." Do it now. Do it often. Do it always.