When you bring your new baby home, everyone says "sleep when the baby sleeps" and "breastfeeding gets better" and "get used to having puke on your clothes" and blah blah blah. But there are so many other things I wish I had really really understood and believed when I was a new mother, if only to ease a little anguish and anxiety and all that awful pressure. Also to uh, have saved a little money.
Now, as a mom of two with the youngest entering kindergarten (eep!), and a blogger who's spent six years hearing the wonderful stories and deep challenges of other parents around the world, here are just 12 of the things I would have loved to have known when I was just starting on this insane, wonderful, trying, exhausting, magical parenting journey. Even though I can't guarantee I would have listened.
1. That stuff on your registry? You don't need most of it.
Bottom line, what new moms think they need isn't what they really need.
I'm a material girl, in some ways. I love adorable baby clothes and cute nursery items and four different kinds of lovely body wash in the bathroom. But I've also learned that a lot of items for new moms are designed to prey on fears and what-ifs that never come to be. Skip the ridiculous device that claims to make your baby "smarter" in utero, and the pacifier disinfector. I promise, millions of toddlers with pacifiers that were wiped "clean" on their moms jeans grew to be healthy, thriving adults with perfectly normal immune systems. Some even have jobs today. Fact.
2. You don't have to babyproof for every baby, just your baby.
I remember buying a huge bag full of outlet covers, cabinet latches, door stops, and things to protect children from those horrible, evil right angles that you realize are EVERYWHERE in your house. (Man, can't they just design houses for parents like Dr. Seuss did?) Seven years later, the vast majority of those items are unopened, heading to Goodwill. Oddly, my kids never showed interest in the kitchen cabinets or running head-first into tables. Although yours might. And a really nice safety gate was a huge comfort at the grandparents' house to block the stairs. The point is: patience, grasshopper. Soon your kids will show you what they need. And then you will get it with all due haste.
3. When you walk into your child's kindergarten class on the first day, the last thing you will be thinking is which of the mothers breastfed.
Obviously the decision about how to feed your baby is important, but it's yours and yours alone. It still amazes me how many crazy knock-down, drag-out fights still happen on message boards (ahembabycentercough) over this choice. I can only promise you that when your child is a little older, the vast majority of you will really not care what another mom is doing or not doing with her boobs. And you probably won't care what some anonymous angry person on the internets said about yours.
3B. When you walk into your child's kindergarten class on the first day, the other last thing you will be thinking is whether someone will judge you for co-sleeping for the first two years.
Sense a theme here? Make educated decisions that work for you and your family, stick with them, and pat yourself on the back for being a conscientious mama who took the time to think about it all. The fact that you're here in the first place means you clearly care about your kids, and that in itself counts for a lot. Whatever judgments you feel now, they're fleeting. Yoga breaths. Let it go.
That leads me to...
4. When another mom judges you, it says more about her than it does about you.
I look back and remember how upset I used to get when some sanctimommy would comment on...oh, pretty much anything at all. My daughter didn't have a hat on in November, or she was spotted eating something that wasn't organic. (The horror!) I've realized if you're confident with your own choices, you really don't worry too much about the choices by other parents, particularly if they don't affect your own child one bit. If you ever have the inclination to defend your parenting choices in a forum for more than 15 seconds, shut the computer and go work on the baby book instead. It's time better spent. Then again...
5. A baby book is not a reflection of the degree of love you have for your child.
Some people create the most gorgeous, professional, heirloom-quality baby book that Martha Stewart would claim for her own if she could. Some people start it, but never get past the first three months. Some people never get to it at all. Psst..it's all good. To this day my brother, who is in his 40s, jokes that his baby album only says "first poop" in it. I'd say he's a fairly well-adjusted, successful guy with a good relationship with our mother. Also? She doesn't feel particular guilty about it at 70. If you've got a camera or a smartphone, no doubt your kid's childhood will be more than well-documented.
6. You will forget to send thank you notes. Kind people will not hold it against you.
Remember all that time you had to pick out all those awesome registry items (that you did or didn't need) for your shower? And all the time you had to write the most heartfelt, hand-written thank you notes for each and every one? You will have less time once the baby is here, and even less time when the baby is a child – and fortunately, everyone knows it. There are some who will scold me for this, but I am the world's worst thank you note-sender. I tell everyone at our parties, "Thank you SO SO much. We so appreciate it...and by the way I am the world's worst thank you note sender so forgive me in advance if you get yours in 2014." And then everyone laughs and confesses how late they are with all their thank you notes too. Bonding over etiquette lapses: very 21st century.
7. You won't stay friends with the same people once you've had a child. That's okay.
It can be painful to realize that your circle of friends changes when you become a parent. Some friends won't understand that you have to plan things around naptimes, and get frustrated with your schedule. Some of them will only want to see you when you're not with your kid, which limits your opportunities. Some will so freak you out with their own parenting methods that you'll have trouble connecting with them. And then, some will just fall off the radar completely.
I remember thinking once I was pregnant that now, at last, I can reconnect with my friends who already had children. We'll have so much in common now! We're all moms! And yet, it didn't quite work that way. I had a newborn, they had older kids with their own established playmates and school schedules and social circles, and today I'm lucky if I see them once a year. I admit I really miss some of those friendships. But I'm also lucky to have amazing new ones. It happens. It's life.
8. Write stuff down.
Baby book or not, find some way to document the little moments you don't want to forget, the first words, the funny accidents, the beautiful milestones. Start a private blog, buy a journal, or just scribble something on an ATM receipt when you think of it and shove it in a drawer. There are even websites like Wee Web that make it easy. I love having a personal blog that enables me to go back and relive the time my 20-month-old demanded grandma crackers and I had no idea what she meant. Otherwise, I'm certain those memories would be lost forever. I can't even remember my kids' birth weights today. Pathetic.
9. It really does take a village
Americans have this unusually strong commitment to independence that makes us feel that unless we do things on our own, we're not competent – I am guilty as charged at times. I've had to learn that enlisting help and support does not mean you're a failure; in every other culture, throughout the centuries, it has always taken more than one or two committed people to raise a child. Lean on sitters, grandparents, neighbors, siblings, friends for advice, help, or a little time off. It's never a bad thing for a child to have even more people who love him.
Addendum: If you miss one pediatrician appointment because you had an obligation and your sister took your kid instead, you are still a great mom. The end.
10. You're allowed to have a life
I am always shocked when I meet parents of three- or four- or 10-year-olds (!) who confess they've never had a night away from the kids. Here's a secret: there's no attendance award in parenting. You don't get extra points for being home every night for six consecutive years. True story. Now, I admit I'm fortunate to have very caring grandparents in our lives who live nearby, and who never hesitated to take our girls for a night or a weekend. I believe this is a large part of why my girls are growing up to be adaptable and resilient – and why I didn't go batsh*t crazy in those early years. A night out with the girls, a day alone shopping, mornings at the gym, or a weekend away on your anniversary is essential to your well-being, your relationship, and even your child's development. Remember: you are a mom 24/7, but that doesn't mean you have to be "Mommy" 24/7.
11. Dads are good parents, too.
Even though my partner was a stay-at-home-dad for the first two years, I admit there were times I was reluctant to hand over the reigns for fear he'd do something wrong, or not the way I'd have done it. He rarely failed however, and honestly, I let the baby roll off the bed more than he did. (What? It was only twice.) If you have a husband or male partner in your life, give him a shot. Men are more capable at soothing, bouncing, feeding, bathing, diaper changing, reading bedtime stories, and kissing boo-boos and than some women give then credit for. And if not? Guy's got to learn some time.
12. You will love your baby.
I remember pregnant moms gushing about how much they loved their babies already and thinking, oh my God...something is wrong with me. I haven't even met the kid yet. And shoot, what if I don't love her? Barring postpartum depression (which is real and consequential) or some other highly unusual situation, I can pretty much guarantee that the emotions will kick in. Maybe not on day one. Maybe not even on day 30. But they will. Today, I can't imagine loving anything or anyone in the world as much as I do my two girls. But I assure you, I'm not alone in confessing that it didn't start that way.
Photos by iStock and liz gumbinner
This post was originally published June 2012.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.