Reading the diary I kept when my daughter was young, I cringe at how little I knew—but I'm proud of how much I've learned. 

By Jancee Dunn
February 19, 2016
daughter eating cereal and sitting on floor
Credit: Ericka McConnell 

When my daughter, Sylvie, was born five years ago, the experience was so vivid, so immediately life-changing, that I assumed every moment would be burned into my memory. Very quickly I realized that I could barely summon the mental energy to put on pants, let alone do anything else. So I kept a diary. I didn't write in it every day, and some entries, particularly during the first weeks, were all but incoherent ("looong day oops up again"). But recording the tiny but important details that would otherwise get lost in time—bedtime rituals, funny things my daughter said, the names of her stuffed animals—was one of the smartest things I ever did. Life moves so quickly, and your child transforms with bewildering speed. Taking stock at the end of the day, however briefly, helped me to make sense of my overwhelming new job.

I was recently rereading the journal (three-quarters of which I never would've remembered). The naí¯veté of my earliest entries makes me laugh, but now I'm happy to share a few lessons I learned along the way.

1. It's a colossal waste of time to get hung up on milestones. Dear Diary: It's now Month 16, and Sylvie is still crawling. Every toddler her age is already walking. Heather told me that Travis was walking at 9 months! I try to get Sylvie to hang on to tables and chairs and pull herself up, but she won't do it. It's getting weird. Maybe I'll take her to the doctor. Again.

A week later, Sylvie calmly stood up and weaved across the living room. In the meantime, I had squandered endless hours (and diary space) agonizing over the delay. Like most kids, she had to go at her own pace. Now that I have a little distance, I know that kids are not going to head off to college with pull-up diapers and a pacifier—unless maybe they're going to a rave.

2. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Dear Diary: Bad day in the drugstore. Sylvie spotted a huge display of vitamins, ran toward it, and knocked it down (her new thing). I told her not to, but she did it anyway. (She is 2 ... ) She has been pushing my buttons all day, so I was frazzled, and I lost my temper with her as I tried to put the vitamins back. Well, I got the dirtiest looks from everyone in the place. Ran out of the store quickly. Now when I hear a stressed-out parent raise her voice, I at least try to give her the benefit of the doubt and not immediately assume that she's an abusive felon.

3. Someday you'll laugh about things that seem deadly serious at the time. Dear Diary: Needed a shower (desperately), so I brought the baby into the bathroom and put her on the floor in her carrier. Then I got into the shower and turned on the water— wearing all my clothes. Haven't gotten any sleep in days and I just started crying. Then of course the baby started crying. Fun morning.

At the moment, as tears coursed down my slate-colored eye bags, I couldn't find much humor in the situation. Now that I get some decent sleep and no longer have the world's tiniest fuse, I love telling this story to everyone with a newborn.

4. That silly ritual you made up on the spot will be something your child talks about for years. Dear Diary: This weekend I didn't feel motivated to leave the house, so I told Sylvie that we were going to have a "Lazy Saturday" and stay in our pajamas, make cookies, and watch movies. She loved it, and now she says she wants every Saturday to be a Lazy Saturday.

Dear Diary: We spent a ton of money to stay in a nice hotel, but all Sylvie talks about from that weekend is the guessing game I made up as we waited for the elevators ("Which elevator is going to come first? I think it will be the one on the right").

Dear Diary: I don't know how it happened, but Friday night is now Homemade Pizza Night.Sylvie starts bringing it up midweek to confirm that it's still on.

As I learned when Sylvie was 4 and we started Lazy Saturdays, kids adore traditions. The rituals don't need to be elaborate, or expensive, or even make a ton of sense. They only need to make a kid feel included, secure, and loved. And starting one is simple: You just have to declare that it's happening in an Official Announcement Voice.

5. To be a parent is to be a hypocrite. Dear Diary: My mother parked Sylvie in front of the TV and I went over and turned it off, explaining that we're not doing TV until she's in preschool, at least. I'm sure she and Dad had a good laugh over it later, but I really don't care.

Dear Diary: Tom and I agree that the pacifier goes after six months.

Dear Diary: Now that Sylvie's 1 and grabbing for our phones, I really am adamant about no electronics when we're all at a restaurant together.

Every one of my earnest little mandates has been broken many times. When you're at a diner and your kid has just hoovered up eight grape-jelly packets and is playing drums with the butter knives, good intentions are not very useful. Guess what it is: your smartphone.

boys having a food fight
Credit: Cynthia Perez

You know more than you think you do. Dear Diary: Sylvie was not herself when I dropped her at school. The other moms said she was fine, so I left her at class and went back home. A few hours later the school called and I had to run and get her. Turns out she has something called Coxsackie virus.

When you have your first child, it's so easy to second-guess yourself, and the tidal wave of advice—from books, blogs, friends, your mother— can overwhelm a new parent. It took me a while to trust my gut, but no one knows my child better than I do.

7. A white lie can be a sanity saver. Dear Diary: We were driving past the toy store yesterday and she started begging to go in, so Tom and I told her it was closed on weekends.

Yes, lies are wrong, but sometimes a worn-out mother just needs to get through the day. And when I bent the truth, I was protecting my daughter from rampant materialism. So my motivations were actually noble.

8. Even the most self-aware of us has a giant, gaping blind spot when it comes to our kids. Dear Diary: Sylvie told another child that she didn't want to play with her. She has never talked like that before. I think it's the influence of those twins.

Dear Diary: Today's playdate was not a success. Sylvie told me that she doesn't want to go back to Jake's house because he wouldn't share his toys, but then Jake's babysitter said later that it was Sylvie who wouldn't share. I don't know if I believe that.

As tempting as it is to ascribe your child's bad behavior to a vast preschool conspiracy, as painful as it is to acknowledge that your darling is the instigator, it can't always be another child's fault. It's just the law of averages.

9. This, too, shall pass. Dear Diary: Lately, Sylvie won't talk to an adult directly but whispers in my ear like Howard Hughes and then has me relay the message. 

Dear Diary: Once again she wants to wear the stripey shirt. I told her she couldn't wear it for the eighth day in a row. For the life of me, I don't understand what is so magical about that shirt.

Dear Diary: Sylvie has been speaking in this strange language that sounds like pig Latin. It's driving Tom crazy.

I see these entries over and over again: I worry about a phase that will seemingly never end, and then one day it abruptly does and never comes up again. This is the prevailing theme of the entire diary—just when you're at the breaking point, a breakthrough.

10. That whispered conversation you had behind closed doors? Your child heard every word. Dear Diary: On our walk home from the park we saw Mrs. D., and Sylvie announced, "Our neighbor is crazy!"

My husband and I later traced this remark to a quiet conversation we had in the kitchen while our child was playing in a nearby bedroom. While music was playing in the background.

11. They will break your heart every day. Dear Diary: I took Sylvie to a play where they called her up to be a dancer and gave her a tutu, but her bottom is so small that her tutu fell down. The audience was laughing at her—not unkindly, it was funny—but she looked so sad that I wanted to snatch her off the stage.

Dear Diary: Tonight we were reading Corduroy (yet again) and she snuggled up against me in her polka-dot pajamas and said, "This is my favorite time of day." Mine too, I told her.

Maybe at some point I'll make it through the day without crying. Doubt it, though.

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