There is only one role in the world I can think of which never ends once you start: being a parent. Parenthood never stops and it becomes unnecessarily stressful when setting parenting expectations which are too high.
Just last night, I asked my husband if having kids has been harder or easier than he thought. He said it changes by the day, hour and minute!
I think the level of difficulty a parent experiences is not only kid-specific, but reflective of parental expectations. Are my kids perfectly well-behaved, eat three square meals a day, and never get fussy? Heck no! But are they healthy, happy, and generally clean and well-fed? Yes – so we’re all winners!
Setting Parenting Expectations from the Very Beginning of Parenthood
Expectation setting started with my first daughter, a singleton. I read a ton of books and I had the advantage of being an aunt, so I knew babies cry and get messy. During my first pregnancy, I set some pretty basic goals for myself. I began with my birth plan. I saw lots of moms work on detailed birth plans and prepare carefully crafted playlists for their iPods and visuals to focus on while breathing through contractions. My birth plan had three simple parts:
1) Drugs: I had no illusions of needing to prove anything to myself in terms of toughness and I did not feel medication to mitigate the pain would negatively impact my baby (just my personal preference)
2) Someone experienced deliver the baby: I say deliver because I wanted to acknowledge the baby may enter the world through a caesarian section surgery if necessary. Also, I just didn’t expect my obstetrician to show up or be on call when I went into labor. A different doctor from the practice delivered my baby, but I couldn’t tell you her name if my life depended on it. I think it started with a G?
3) Try to breastfeed: I knew breastfeeding would be a new and interesting adventure, but I did not want to put pressure on myself since I had no personal or peripheral experience with successful breastfeeding at the time. When my first daughter was born, I did not know anyone who had breastfed their own babies for an extended period of time. I said try because I wanted to give it a real shot. I did not put pressure on myself to exclusively nurse for 6 months, I just wanted to take it one day at a time. Fast forward three years and I have exclusively nursed all three of my girls for 13 months when they self-weaned.
These three goals seemed pretty reasonable to me. I was certain I wanted an epidural when the contractions became really intense; I knew a medical professional would deliver the baby because I was in a hospital setting, and I was able to get my daughter to latch for a feeding within an hour of delivering her. I have since learned babies self-attach to the breast and nurse on their own soon after delivery. In the end, my goals were achieved, but I purposefully did not set myself up for failure.
Having more children changed my expectations
Anecdotally, I have heard a lot of parents comment how easy their first baby was compared to their second, third, etc. Every child is an individual and they are hardwired to respond differently than their siblings. Upon learning I was pregnant again I wanted to mentally prepare for the fact I cut my parenting teeth on my first child and what worked for her may not work on the next baby. At my first ultrasound I learned I was pregnant with twins and everything went out the window! I felt like I was starting with a parenting clean slate because I really had no idea what was coming.
I figured if I could just get some sleep the first 3 months after they are born, we’ll be OK. As it turns out, I got more consistent sleep with the twins than I experienced with my singleton. I was just preparing for the worst. They were able to cycle through their daily routine of nursing, diaper change, playing, nursing again, and then sleeping, much more efficiently than my singleton and there were two of them!
READ: My Sleep Training Novella (to get your kid to sleep through the night)
I often hear, “Well you are lucky, you have easy kids.” I think there’s more to it than luck, it’s where I set my expectations and I look for the positive in every situation. I also try to tune in to what my kids needs are and what they are trying to communicate. Every baby has their own way of telling you what they want and what works for them. My oldest daughter could nap for hours in her swing, no problem. The twins had no interest in swinging for more than five minutes. What works for one will not work for all. As a mother to three individuals (albeit two are identical twins) I need to constantly remind myself they are their own people.
Despite being the mother of multiples and a 3-year-old, I have the reputation of being a really calm and minimalist mama. I have yet to experience the complete freak out moment where I think, “This is way harder than I ever anticipated. I don’t know how to do this. I don’t think I can do this.” I attribute this to the fact I keep my expectations realistic. I think, “What’s the worst that could happen?” For me, the worst is a diaper blow out/vomit (or both) and being unable to clean up the mess and change the baby. I can prepare for this by bringing my diaper bag stocked with diapers, wipes, and a change of clothes, but even then it may be hopeless. So the worst to me is an explosion of smelly waste which I cannot clean up right away, and come to think of it… it actually happened when my daughter puked on herself twice while strapped into her car seat when we were 7 hours from home, driving to visit my in-laws for Thanksgiving. There was no shoulder to pull off to and we were still 40 minutes from our destination, so we all suffered through the smell of vomit, except you would never guess my toddler felt ill because she was happy as a lark after puking her guts out. I was pregnant with my twins and incredibly nauseous and sensitive to smell (so I breathed through a bag the last 40 minutes of the drive). It was gross, but we survived (however, the car seat did not, it had to be trashed). I am actually thankful we were only 40 minutes away instead of having hours left in the drive (silver-lining)!
Moreover, I expect my children to behave like little people who are stilling figuring the world out. They are going to test me, test their boundaries, and learn some things the hard way. Parents often worry about how their kids will behave in public. Kids can spot a weakness like a hawk swooping in for a kill hundreds of feet away. Kids know we are vulnerable in public, so it’s the perfect time to have a tantrum/meltdown. I expect this to happen at least once in a while for my girls. Instead of completely giving into panic and trying to flee the scene, I look at this as a teaching moment where my girls will learn (or in most cases, relearn) no matter how much of a fit you throw, mama will remain calm and you will not get your way. I am literally decades older than my toddler. She is 3 years old. The simple fact I have lived longer on this planet means I am going to win.
Also, learning some lessons the hard way is OK with me. For example, my petite toddler was just 22 months old when we put her in a big twin bed. It was a matter of necessity because we needed her crib for the twins’ nursery. I admit, the bed is pretty darn tall because even I feel like I have to climb up to get into it! Still, we presented it as an upgrade instead of an eviction from her crib. I was not sure how the transition would go since I have heard of kids climbing out of bed once they were free of their mini jail cell, errr… crib. Well, on the very first night Esther fell out of her (very high up) big girl bed and she quickly learned to stay in bed after we completed our bedtime routine. This clearly made the transition from crib to bed pretty easy. Stay in bed or you will fall out, lesson learned!
I think parenthood is about how you frame the situation for yourself. It’s my nature to be incredibly organized, prioritize and re-prioritize my “to do” list daily, and try to find time for self-reflection and mindful breathing, all this while working outside of the home in a full-time job and running a household with a husband and three small children hungry for dinner each night. My to do list is never-ending and the need to prepare meals will be there for as long as I live. So how do I manage to keep my head above water? I set reasonable expectations for myself and my children.
READ: Posts on Time Management
I Am Not Alone
Also, I ask for help. Each time we welcomed a new baby, my home life and marriage shifted and things changed. I need to ask my husband for help because I cannot do it all on my own (thus his awesome contribution of cooking dinner a few nights each week). I also graciously accept help from others who offer. Being vulnerable no longer means I am weak or incapable. It means I am smart enough to realize I cannot do it all on my own and I do not need to do it all on my own. Who am I proving myself to anyway? In my experience, the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, the more love and strength I find in the world. In my personal opinion, the more you expose your “sensitive side” the “tougher” you really are. It’s really hard, but remarkably rewarding.
We will not always have a well-balanced hot meal on the table by dinnertime. There will be nights we eat cereal for dinner, but we’re eating a meal together and enjoying family time at the table. The expectation of spending quality time together as a family is my ultimate priority and this is what matters more.