Open Letter to This Week’s New Parents

You're gonna need more than this!

You’re gonna need more than this!

Welcome new parents! Now that my oldest child has turned twelve, I feel like a veteran… or rather a “seasoned professional” who has some advice on launching your new career in raising children. Think of me as that older (but not “old”) woman with the corner office down the hall. You know, the one with the personal shopper at Nordstrom who leaves a bit early every Friday for a fabulous weekend in San Francisco or New York or Montreal with her hot husband. But subtract the wardrobe and the travel… and add a couple of kids. Oh, and the office is no longer on the corner, but if you push aside the pile of back-to-school forms, bills and unfiled this-and-that, there is a nice view out the window.

At any rate, to those of you reporting for your first day as parents, what I am about to tell you may go against the grain of other things you’ll hear. You can take it or leave it, but I share it in the hopes that someone somewhere is spared at least one slap-to-the-forehead mistake that they might make in their new job.

Let’s start with compensation…

The pay isn’t great, but the rewards are________. Insert whatever dreamy adjective you’d like, but the fact is that people will say this to you, and it will not make you feel better… at all… and it just might make you more miserable.

The world is filled with well-meaning men and, especially, women who are a good 10 years past the active child-rearing phase whose memory has spared them the agony of recollection of the “fourth trimester.” (This is actually a good thing, because you’ll need grandparents to be willing to watch your little one(s) when you celebrate your 40th in the Virgin Islands.)

Sometimes the rewards of parenting aren’t good. Sometimes they are non-existent. It’s okay to believe this. It doesn’t matter that someday you will know what they mean. If today sucks, then it sucks. Just like any other days that suck, you live with it and move on. You do not need to carry the extra burden of thinking there’s something wrong with you for not experiencing constant joy. So unload that baggage. You have permission to not treasure every moment.

The time off policy…

You will sleep again, but not soon enough for your liking. When I was pregnant, I was told that “babies don’t sleep.” Now, unless you have some insight into infanthood, there is no way that this phrase makes sense. Of course babies sleep, right? How often do you see sleeping babies snuggled in their portable car seats (aka buckets) atop shopping carts in Target and at the grocery store? Plenty. So that warning that “babies don’t sleep,” can’t possibly be true.

The problem with “babies don’t sleep,” is that the words don’t adequately serve the situation, kind of like reading an instruction manual for IKEA furniture. What people should say is that “babies don’t sleep when you need to eat, use the bathroom or do anything that sustains you as a human being” or “babies only sleep when immersed in the white noise of a busy restaurant” or “babies don’t sleep for longer than 20 minutes at a time and only at intervals of once every two hours.”

A few of you will have babies who don’t appear to sleep at all. You will lay them in their car seats (because there is a high correlation between babies who don’t sleep and those who will tolerate a bassinet for only three seconds), and as you listen to the tension-inducing sounds of their snorting and whimpering, you will enter some kind of semi-conscious state where you will have visions (can’t call them dreams if you aren’t sleeping) of eating banana splits from from a trough or Joey from “Friends” refusing to give you back your baby, only to be snapped into reality (and you’ll question how real it really is) by full-blown wailing. You’ll doubt if anyone was, in fact, sleeping during that strange period of time which might only amount to seven minutes on the clock.

How long does it take to get over this kind of psychological torture? It depends. But eventually kids sleep, or they get to an age when you can better manipulate the situation. Though this may not result in your sleeping. The worries are parenthood are excellent contributors to insomnia.

Indulge in binge viewing. Yeah, maybe you should be sleeping. Yeah, maybe you should be making your own baby food with one of the three food mills you received at your shower. But in the future, you won’t have the energy to watch six straight hours of anything, let alone the hottest new series you haven’t yet seen because reruns of “Will & Grace” are on during the baby’s feeding time and/or you are now saving for college and purging your lifestyle of anything “frivilously expensive,” like HBO (a drop in the bucket, BTW). My husband and I look back on those Saturday nights we spent rolling through six whole seasons of “Sex & The City,” with fondness. It was kind of like date night but without the expense of a babysitter or the necessity of trying to squeeze back into my pre-pregnancy clothes.

Colleagues you can count on…

Resale is your friend. Trust me, when you get more than a decade into parenting and it is time to clean out that toy room or basement (or both) once again, you are going to feel fairly sick to your stomach at all the money that could have gone into your children’s educational fund but instead was invested in parade of primary-colored plastic objects that is about to march out your door to the Goodwill. If you are like me, you will experience the horror of having to toss any number of those broken toys into the garbage, thus contributing to the Plastic Ocean. Save yourself, the planet and your bank account — buy as much as you can second-hand.

Some of you will be a bit troubled by the idea of your baby engaging with something that is less than pristine. You will learn quickly that these kids do all sorts of things to spread germs, dirt and unidentifiable smudges. It becomes hard to tell what is “foreign.” Thanks to people like myself, there are loads of child paraphernalia in excellent condition from smoke-free homes. You’ll have no problem finding things that are more than adequate. Tell the grandparents, aunts and uncles — especially those who have a knack for buying the last thing you would want your child to have — to pad the education account. That’s one thing that never seems plentiful enough.

Your instincts won’t always serve you well. Trust them anyway. It was confusing when people told me to trust my instincts as I approached my final weeks of pregnancy. How in the world could I possibly have “instincts” for something with which I had no experience? What do “instincts” feel like anyway? What do “instincts” tell you?

Instincts under the influence of new parenthood will tell you all sorts of things, including plenty that are completely over-the-top and incredulous. One minute you’re convinced that the snorting and sniffling of your newborn indicates a breathing problem. The next you are certain that the absence of those sounds means the absence of breath. You just know your baby isn’t eating the right amount, until he/she drinks enough to begin choking. Then you fear precocious gluttony. You start the car after someone left the stereo cranked really high, and your baby will now suffer from hearing loss from the 0.7 second blast of sound.

But the thing is, your instincts are one of the best tools you’ve got. All the other resources you can tap into — books, grandparents, physicians, nurses, lactation consultants, parenting gurus, friends on social media, random commenters on mommy/daddy blogs, moms who cross four aisles in CVS to hear your newborn’s tender cry — they aren’t water-tight either. There will be that one time when you’re swimming upstream against everyone else, that one time when someone dares to utter the word “paranoia” to describe your “concern”… and it turns out that you will be right.

So, next time you reach for your phone to call your pediatrician’s office for the fifth time that day, remember that if it’s instinct that’s driving you, even if you are overreacting, you are doing your job.

Performance standards…

Especially for moms… it’s okay to not be good at “motherly” things. Enter motherhood and you will find there are many things the world automatically expects you to be into. Granted, you’ll spend more time than you ever imagined discussing things like nipple confusion. You may never have expected to pay such close attention how often another human being has a “BM,” and then share that information with others.

But not everything “motherly” will appeal to you, and this makes you no less capable in your role. For example, walking around Michael’s, your feelings of inadequacy increasing with every aisle of scrapbooking doo-dads and cake decorating what-nots you pass, because you feel compelled to do something “crafty” for Halloween may amount to nothing but a waste of time. Birthing a human being does not make one skilled with glitter, glue or even iron-on things.

By the way, it also doesn’t mean that you have an internal tracking system for every object in the house (though this perception only gets worse as your children and husband get older). Becoming a mother doesn’t mean that you will magically learn how to cook. And deciding that you’ll learn to cook during your maternity leave isn’t a good idea either, unless you want your lactation consultant to scold you for eating nothing but handfuls of dried fruit (too much acidity).

The culture…

“They have their whole lives to show the world how smart they are but only one time to be a kid.” I borrowed this from another parent of a 12-year-old I spoke with a few years ago. It has become my guide on so many decisions. Especially in this modern world of curated Facebook feeds and junior superstar everything, it’s tempting to want to respond to any glimmer of special skill or talent your child has. You may be sitting here thinking I won’t fall victim to this kind of thing. And maybe you won’t. But we live in a world of measurement and comparisons, and the compulsion to give your child opportunities is strong. You can read dozens of New York Times articles quoting psychologists who warn against the dangers of over-scheduling and lack of free play, but many of you will still waver over that sign-up sheet for just one more activity because you want them to be socialized, ready for the fourth-grade soccer team, have a shot at the youth symphony or any number of other things.

It’s definitely good to celebrate your child’s successes and support their growth. Just make sure that your child wants to and can own them.

Good luck out there, new parents! This baby thing might be overwhelming, but the on-the-job training is amazing, and you will always be challenged with something new.

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