I always say God has a great sense of humor. After a year in private practice as a pediatrician caring for new parents and newborns, I thought I knew it all and that being a new mom would be a piece of cake. That’s when God giggled and I discovered I was pregnant with triplets!
While I was pregnant, all I could think was how hard it was and that if I got through the pregnancy, then everything would be okay. Then the babies were born. I am blessed to be one of those people who truly love every aspect of being a parent. Every milestone, every new adventure with my children are cherished times I truly wouldn’t trade for anything. However, there is a part of that experience not often discussed or written about: Whether it is your first baby or your fifth, or whether you have one baby or a couple babies at once, being a parent is really tough.
I found being a new parent to be a truly ground-shaking, overwhelming experience. It was wonderful and magical, but it was also exhausting – emotionally and physically. There were days I woke up and didn’t know if I could do it all over again. So, once I finally figured it out enough to get my head above water, I began to take every opportunity to support other parents in the process.
When my children were still very young, I met a mother who was hospitalized due to complications of her multiple birth pregnancy. She and her spouse had set the bar so high for themselves in regard to their expectations of what being a “perfect parent” meant, that I worried. We all worried. We involved social work. We talked openly. We created a social support that checked in on her. Even still, when her infants went home, in a moment of extreme stress, one was abused and will never be the same. That experience reinforced in me the need many parents have for emotional support and education and for honest, open conversations about the difficulties of parenting. It made providing that support for parents of multiples and all new parents, a central focus of my career.
Almost ten years of parenting classes, prenatal classes, phone conversations and online support have passed and what I have learned is that the same themes emerge over and over again. Here is the “nutshell” version of what I’ve learned. I hope it serves as a spring board for conversation, for reaching out and supporting each other in what is truly the toughest, but most rewarding job created.
1. There will be many days you don’t enjoy being a parent. Before having a child, many of us believe that being a new parent is an endless stream of happy times and Kodak moments. To think otherwise is un-American, unloving and self-fish. When we give birth, and our feelings differ from this expectation, we somehow think we are bad parents, or terrible people. Being a new parent has its wonderful, amazing, “nothing in life is better” moments, no question. But those moments are sprinkled between long pauses of sleepless nights, feeling like an inadequate mother because the baby just won’t latch on to breast feed, or didn’t grow as much as the pediatrician wanted, or grew too much or didn’t walk at 10 months like your sister’s child, or…
The best thing each of us can do for ourselves and to support each other is to be honest. Being a parent is hard. It takes all that you have to get through some days and some days you won’t be on your game. That’s not only OK, it is normal. In the many parenting classes and conversations I have had over the years, that is the number one most important message for parents to hear: parenting is hard and there are days you won’t find it rewarding no matter how long you waited to be a parent or how hard you worked to reach that goal. No one finds it easy and if they say it is, they’re lying! So, put it on a billboard, shout it from a mountain top, tell all your friends: parenting is a hard job, one you will hate at times. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed you are very, very normal! So, now that we’ve established that key point, what are the things we can do to make the journey a bit less harrowing?
2. Be good to yourself and ask for help. The key to being an excellent parent is to be good to yourself and your partner and to ask for help. That is the most important lesson I have learned, personally and professionally. I’m a very independent person, so this was definitely a lesson that took much remediation for me to learn. I flunked “Asking for help 101” many times before I truly got it. If you give and give until you’re empty, what’s left isn’t your best. Your children and your partner deserve your best. You deserve to treat yourself well. What does that mean? It means that you step away from being “Super Mom” or “Super Dad” on a regular, scheduled basis to give yourself and your family the gift of a renewed parent. You leave the kids with someone while you exercise, get the sleep you need, journal, go out on a date. Doing this may not feel good the first five or six times. Do it anyway! Go through the motions of going on a date, getting dressed up and planning a night out. You won’t feel like it. Sweat pants and pizza in front of the TV will seem much more appealing. Do it anyway for your kids and your partner. With time, you will start to enjoy going. Similarly, the last thing many new parents want to do is to expend unnecessary energy exercising. Go anyway! Go through the motions of exercising in some way daily, even for 30 minutes three times a week at a minimum for a month and you will begin to realize why you need to exercise.
3. Seek out support. Let friends and relatives watch the kids, bring meals, and help around the house. Find friends who are at the same stage in life and talk honestly with them. Reach out to others to give and get support. There are many other parents out there who will appreciate the effort and return the favor. If you can’t get out of the house physically, get out mentally via a phone call to a friend. Seek out people who are supportive and understanding. Avoid those who are critical or unsupportive. Life is hard enough; you don’t need negative people making it harder. Build for yourself a community of support and fun. People who like to do the same sports or have the same interests, people with the same aged kids, people to whom you feel connected and find joy and support by their mere presence. Doing the laundry and picking gum out of your toddler’s hair are so much more fun with a good friend laughing at you and holding the peanut butter or the Shout. If you haven’t heard from a friend in a while, she may be overwhelmed. Give her a call; seek her out to offer your friendship and support.
4. Learn the signs of postpartum depression. Lastly, realize that even calm, well adjusted, intelligent people get overwhelmed with parenting. Know that an inability to sleep despite feeling exhausted, lack of an appetite, extreme or constant irritability or anxiety are signs of post partum depression. Post partum depression can occur anytime within the first year and general depression can strike at any time. If your feelings seem abnormal, seek help. Call a hotline. Call your obstetrician. Read more about post partum depression at Post Partum Support International or another online resource. No one will think you a bad parent, and you will get the help you need to be your best self again.
Want to learn more about adjusting to parenting? Visit your local bookstore. One book I recommend is: Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Post Partum Survival Guide by Dr. Diane Sanford