As my sister is due (literally) to give birth to my first nephew at any moment, I've been thinking much about the many questions she's asked me during the past months as well as all I've learned since Jack was born more than eight years ago. "All I've learned" is immense, the sort of mass-scale discoveries one unearths by virtue of doing something every day for months and years on end; by being tethered to dynamic beings who are initially wholly dependent on you but whom you must teach to let go and move forth in evermore independent ways; by being both in the trenches of struggle and in the clouds of joy through which you must pass repeatedly during this journey; by attempting to maintain a sense of self within and distinct from parent-child relationships.
Parenthood is the ultimate humbling experience. Its constancy and challenges are the sort of things one can't really prepare for in a way commensurate with the demands of its reality. I mean this with the utmost earnestness. I always wanted to be a mother; specifically, an at-home mother. I read all the books, took the requisite classes, learned everything I could about the most up-to-date birthing, nursing, safety, eating, sleeping and early-education recommendations. Some of what I discovered altered my own habits even before Jack was born, and much of what I studied did prepare me well for the concrete elements of being a mom: I knew who to call if we encountered any difficulty with nursing; I knew when I could start sleep-training; I did not let Jack watch TV for a hell of a long time; we have had a daily routine since about day 15.
What I didn't know, perhaps what I couldn't have known (though I would like to change some of the dialogue about "becoming a mom"), were the intangible bits and pieces that actually construct much of a parent's being and often feel more vexing and critical. For me this has been especially true as my sons have gotten older. These less-rosey, more existential dilemmas are what really bring me to my knees, but they are also what can provide a greater sense of understanding, fulfillment and connection to the boys.
Altogether, these are the morsels of both instinctive and accrued knowledge that feel like pearls of wisdom to me now. These are the things I will share with my sister and friends as their little ones are born and grow.
10 Important Lessons I've Learned Since Becoming a Mom
- Figure out the values and traits you most want to instill and hone in your children and work assiduously towards those from Day 1. I believe I can safely generalize by stating that kids aren't born with a hell-bent desire to write thank you notes or eat like civilized beings. We have to both model and teach them those things, as well as all the more important values like kindness, gratitude, generosity and honesty. No matter how much I may wish it so, I haven't found that there's much room for laziness and corner-cutting in strong parenting, especially when kids are young and formative. Each step counts for something so don't squander opportunities. It's a lot easier to always teach toward the optimal behavior than to have to backtrack and retrain later. Trust me: despite advice to the contrary, we let Percy jump on us when he was a cute, four-pound puppy and now suffer daily from an incredibly ill-trained, twenty-five-pound pug. Thank god he came before the real children. #lessonlearned
- My kids are not clones of me or my husband; do not expect yours to be, either. Love them for that. Children are unique brews of what they get not only from their biological parents but also from their extended families and, for fun and giggles, some newly combinant stuff. Each is a singular, unprecedented being. Please love them for who they are rather than for who you hoped they would be. Staying open to the myriad possibilities of each child makes it that much easier to adore and appreciate them through the hard, surprising times. If I expected my kids to respond and behave exactly as I would, I'd be frustrated 90% of the time. You get the kids you get; accept that great (and often tremendously challenging) fact and move on. With them! Does this mean you need to agree with all of their choices? No. Should you push back on and guide your children? Absolutely. But if they know that they are loved for the individuals they are, I think they're much more likely to trust and follow your guidelines. Acceptance breeds openness too. If they trust you with their hearts, the lines of communication between you will stay open, and that is invaluable.
- Find a time, place or way in which you can fall in love with each child again. Make this simple so that you can do it daily if you need to. I have found this an incredibly important tactic because (and here's one of those things too few people tell you or admit) some days are really hard, so hard that you will actually dislike some or all of your kids. You will look at them as if they are alien devil spawn who have trespassed into your home to wreak havoc on your psyche. If they are old enough, they will likely enjoy your horrified stupefaction which makes the whole experience that much more infuriating. You will feel a desperate need to like them anew. Without fail, I treasure mine in unadulterated fashion when I go into their rooms each night after they're asleep. They are so soft and sweet and quiet and innocent. I can sit beside them, in the silence, and just fall in love again.
- Be ready to be your child's biggest, most ferocious-in-a-lovely-way advocate. I can almost guarantee you that every child will need an advocate at least once (but probably more like 85 times) in his/her life. If you get off with once, you are parenting the equivalent of the Willy Wonka Golden Bar, so really, don't expect that. Advocacy, which is really just standing up for your child and his/her needs, can be as simple as having a clarifying talk with another parent about what really happened during the playdate. It can be a more difficult discussion with your child's school about a bully whose behavior towards your child is seriously problematic. It can be within your nuclear or extended family about your own parenting philosophies (One of my earliest experiences with advocacy was on behalf of my kids' sleep schedules, a topic about which I felt/feel very strongly and with which some in our extended families disagreed.) Advocacy is not always easy, but neither is parenting. Note: In my opinion, advocacy and loving your child for who he/she is often go hand in hand. If you are truly committed to honoring your child's inner self, you'll be able to see more clearly those aspects of him/her that need support in some way.
- Firm and consistent discipline IS your friend. Ever meet a child and think, "Wow, what a nightmare!" Of course you have. In all likelihood, that child has never been told "No." Cultivate kids that you and others enjoy spending time with. It's an infinitely more difficult job to raise appealing beings because it requires discipline and consistency in message over a long time. This is exhausting, but the pay-offs are obvious anytime you meet an adult from whom you immediately want to run. Going back to Point 1, identify behaviors that you like and admire in self and others and figure out ways to nurture those in your own kids. The thank-you note is, again, a simple but clear example. I don't know anyone who doesn't respond incredibly positively to a hand-written note of appreciation. Model that, teach it, enforce it, and at some point, thank-yous will become second nature to your kids even if via obligatory guilt from the maternal voice on their shoulders. Will this cause friction at times? Yes. But I'd rather the kids be mad at me on occasion (note: they're going to get mad and dislike you sometimes anyway) and turn out to be nice people than to attempt to please them all time and turn out entitled dictators.
- Be willing to keep learning, change your mind and don't sweat the unimportant stuff. There are so many mines on the battlefield of Raising Kids, and while some are ones you mustn't allow your kids to cross, others are completely inconsequential. I have had to learn to simply let some things go, because then, when it's really important and I have to dig my heels in, I am taken more seriously by the tiny warriors known as kids. At the end of the day, this is better for everyone. They see that Mom can both make mistakes and change her mind in light of new information and their valid opinions, and they learn from that. Would I rather the boys make their beds and brush their teeth OR wear things that match? Well, although I find it odd when Ol insists on wearing bright orange-red shorts and that same color shirt plus green and blue striped socks to school, I would, ultimately, rather him make his bed and brush his teeth. I've learned to just say, "Ok, man. If you want to look like a shock of fire all day, be my guest." He feels empowered in his choice, and I don't have to look at gross teeth or an unkempt bed. When Jack lazily completes writing homework, I work like hell to sit on my hands and let him take the fall for that later rather than force him to do it to my standards now. This is a lesson I've really just learned and accepted: how will he ever start to do his best work for himself if I force him to do it for me? Only when he learns what it feels like to turn in sub-par work and reap the consequences of that will the motivation for doing his best work become an internal one. He knows that we expect him to do his best. But ultimately, he has to be the one who does that.
- It is often wise to take your child's version of a predicament with a loving grain of salt. I'm talking about kids in the ten-and-under range here as I don't have much experience with older ones who might be more prone to objective re-tellings rather than highly subjective ones rooted in their own emotional experiences of said predicament. Every Saturday before Tae Kwon Do, Jack bitches to the nines about how he doesn't want to go, has never wanted to go and how the whole thing is my fault because I never even asked him if he wanted to take Tae Kwon Do. Since I actually do recall the exact conversation we had after the birthday party he attended at the TKD studio in which he said I MUST register for him for classes, it is extremely easy to swat away this erroneous claim. As well, because I know he has trouble leaving one activity (playing with Legos, for example) to move onto another (TKD), I know that while he thinks he doesn't want to go, he actually just struggles with transitions. Lastly, because I see him after class and he is always thrilled by having learned yet another nunchuck move, I know that he truly enjoys TKD. If I took as gospel his complaints, we would have signed up for and dropped out of Tae Kwon Do at least 50 times in the past 18 months. Not only would that be irritating and costly, but also (and again going back to Point 1), what would that teach him about sticking with a commitment? When he did seem to seriously want a break, we took a month off. He then wanted to return and so we did. The weekly complaints are just noise. It's important to know your child so that you can discern between true need and trivial chatter.
- Be involved but not enmeshed. This might be one of the places in which I laze out, but I actually don't care too much about what the kids do at school all day. We worked exceedingly hard to find a place that we could trust with the boys' academic and social-emotional growth. Because we found that gold mine, I have been able to take a load off. Sure, I'm curious about who their friends are and what they enjoy learning, and I definitely want to know about their relationships with their teachers. But, I don't need to know exactly what they did every minute of every hour. I feel it's the perfect place for them to begin living their own lives. I'm getting the newsletters, I volunteer there enough to have a sense of what's shaking, and they tell me, on their own time and in their own way, what's important. Likewise, and I learned this on the later side, you can host a playdate and not participate in it. When I realized that I did not need to manage and play in the playdate, I was liberated and the boys learned a lot about independence. Create safe spots -their rooms, a basement or play area- and let them go. Same is true for birthday parties: if it's a drop-off, drop those babies off. They will learn that they can do it, and that is an amazing boost of confidence for them. Note: Closely related to this is the concept of teaching children that your time is just as valuable as theirs. In retrospect, I believe I have been too "on" for basically their whole lives. No wonder they have trouble considering that when I say I need space or quiet time, I really mean it. A couple years ago, we instituted Quiet Hour (QH) and Family Sunday (FS). The first, QH, comes after lunch on both Saturday and Sunday. We all get one hour of quiet time to ourselves. The boys can play together but they must do so quietly and not in the same room as either T or me. Family Sunday occurs on Sunday mornings before or after the farmers market which is usually a family outing. FS is time devoted to T and me getting to read the paper. The kids can do what they want but it's off-screen and independent. This is great for everyone, and the boys are that much closer for it.
- Sometimes, it's best to Just Say Yes. I tell T this all the time. Kids can be pretty boring and repetitive, but they can also be hilarious, creative, slap-your-ass fun. Follow their lead by just saying yes sometimes to the games and ideas they propose (within reason of course). What may initially seem like a dull waste of time will often turn into one of the best bonding, stuff-of-memories experiences ever. Also, when you just say yes, you might find they take later "not right now's" a bit better.
- You MUST take time for yourself when you can. Just do it. You deserve and will be better for it, and they will learn that you are more than mom.