Tips from A Mom Who's Been There
I'm a mother of three and far enough away from those infant years to look back with...well, I'm not sure I'd call it wisdom. More like 20/20 hindsight. I guess I can hope to put my lessons learned to good use in my next life. In the meantime, I'll do what so many of us veteran moms do: try to warn the women going through new parenthood right now about some of the mistakes I made. Here are ten things I wish someone had told me the first time around.
Baby's world isn't perfect, and that's okay.
Like most women, I was determined to be a wonderful mother, and so I aimed to be totally responsive to my baby's every emotion. My goal was to create a perfect universe for Rory, one free of pain and unhappiness.
Of course, by the time my second child arrived seven years later, I realized that the tactics I was using to be a great mom were making me a not-so-good one. Babies need to adjust to the larger world. It's not your job to shield them from every negative emotion, but to teach them how to deal with disappointment and "no" and the occasional really boring afternoon. Teaching your child to weather ups and downs is ultimately more important than creating an artificially ideal world.
Routines will save everyone's sanity.
I never liked to schedule myself, which worked fine when I was a childless adult. Then I had Rory, and naptimes came whenever she was frantic with exhaustion, and mealtimes were on demand. I thought I was being a cool mom, if a frazzled one. I didn't realize how much small children thrive on routines until I enrolled Rory in day care, where each hour was ordered according to a strict schedule. Good luck, I thought as I dropped her off, knowing how my daughter protested about eating, napping, or going outside when she didn't feel like it.
To my astonishment, not only did Rory follow the routines, she loved them. She began napping regularly at school and went to bed more willingly at night. She ate all of the lunch I packed and was less picky at dinner. I quickly realized that adhering to routines could make our lives much easier as parents. With my next two babies, I began easing them into a predictable schedule in the early weeks.
Don't be afraid to call the doctor.
In the first weeks of Rory's life, I called the doctor, oh, three or four times a day. On a calm day. My concerns kept turning out to be nothing, so I felt foolish rather than reassured. By Christmas Eve, when my baby's fingernails were strangely pink at the edges, I hesitated to bother the pediatrician.
Then I got antsy and made the call anyway. And it's a good thing I did because those pink nails were the sign of a staph infection that was easily cured but, left untreated, might have killed Rory. So call--even when the problem seems minor, even when you feel silly. I'm glad I learned this lesson so early in my career as a mother. Sure, 98 percent of the time it turns out to be nothing. But it's the other 2 percent that still makes me shudder.
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Make friends with other moms nearby.
Man, I hate the idea of searching for friends. I like to develop friendships naturally, but that meant I was largely isolated when I was the first among my circle to have a baby. By my third child, I realized that deliberately hunting for compatible women with kids my own child's age made life so much easier. My son had playmates, and I had a group of consultants. Yes, it felt a little awkward and artificial to strike up conversations with strangers at baby gym class, but the payoff of finding a new community was worth it.
Sweat the big stuff.
The changes that come with having a new baby are so overwhelming that it's tempting to deal only with each small challenge as it comes: how to survive on three hours' sleep, or find the bottle the baby will actually take, or figure out how to just get out the door.
But don't ignore the bigger, more sweeping changes you need to address. The issue might not be finding the extra cash for diapers, but that it's time to reevaluate the way you spend money. It might not be that you just need to work out a plan so your husband can help you tonight; you might also need to sit down and work out responsibilities he needs to take on permanently. Daunting as it is to realize that everything--everything!--in your life has changed, thinking bigger will help you transcend daily challenges and make better long-term decisions.
Think about the next baby.
I was not a mom who planned her family. The result: three kids in 11 years. The upsides were that I was ready to have each infant and that each received a lot of attention. The downsides were that it was hard to plan full-family activities and it really stretched out the years we spent in frustrating stages (diapers and potty training come to mind).
And that may be the perfect trade-off for you. But it's smart, if you can manage it, to have a vision from the beginning of what kind of family you want. A pair (or gang) of kids who entertain each other? An only child who blends into your adult world? Settling on this larger vision helps you decide how to manage your job, child care, and more.
It will never be easier to go to work.
This is actually welcome news if you're a mom who has to return a mere six weeks after having your baby. So many moms stop working when their children are infants, thinking it will be easier to go back once the babies are toddlers, or in nursery school or first grade. But the truth is, it's no easier once your child is used to having you home and knows enough to miss you.
And don't forget, if you've been out of the workforce for more than five years, your own contacts and sense of confidence may be frayed. I'm not saying you should go back to work, especially if you don't need the paycheck and don't want to go. It's simply that you shouldn't fool yourself into thinking it's going to get easier over time to tear yourself away.
Find child care you feel 100 percent wonderful about.
My husband and I employed a lot of babysitters over a couple of decades, making changes as work went from part-time to full-time or as the kids were in school longer and so on. A few sitters were terrible, a handful were mediocre, and some were amazing.
Too often, I was afraid to let a so-so sitter go, rationalizing that I probably wouldn't find a better one. Yet when we did find someone wonderful, the difference was so dramatic that I wished I'd never settled for less.
How to find a Mary Poppins? If only I knew a magic formula. I hired experienced women with great references who turned out to be just okay, and inexperienced girls I hired strictly on instinct were perfect. Trust your gut--and if you can, hire someone for a day or two before you commit.
Don't waste time wallowing in guilt.
You'll make yourself nuts. I remember anguishing over whether to let the baby cry himself to sleep or let him drift off in my arms, and debating whether to go out for a night with my husband or stay home with a baby who seemed to need me more. Guilt isn't all bad: sometimes, it can point the way to something you might need or want to do differently. But I can testify that the things you're beating yourself up about today will fade away tomorrow...to be replaced by new dilemmas to make you feel guilty. Don't get so torn up by a fleeting issue that you enjoy your baby less.
Take care of yourself.
You've probably heard this before, but you really do need to make it a priority to recharge. Don't use naptime or babysitter hours to listen to your friend yap away, unless chatting with her makes you feel happy too. Carve out a little time each week to do whatever puts you back in touch with yourself, whether it's reading or taking a yoga class or wandering around the mall. It may seem impossible while your kids are small, but the time will come when being the best possible mother means letting them go off to live their own lives. You want to be sure that you still have a life of your own to come back to.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.