Parenting 101: Expectations vs reality
All I ever really wanted to be when I grew up was a mom.
Like many little girls, I played ‘house’ all the time as a kid, treating my baby dolls with love and care, teaching them and handing out discipline when they needed it. As a teenager, I did lots of babysitting, was an involved aunt to a whole bunch of baby nephews and worked in child care centers any chance I could get. I loved hanging out with little kids – still do!
So at age 30, I entered parenthood with a pretty strong idea of what I thought it would be like to be a mom. Heck, I even had a degree in child development and had worked in the early childhood profession teaching and helping families for years.
I thought I knew everything there was to know, LOL.
Enter baby #1. Then baby #2 and #3. All within 4 years of one another. Honestly, I can say I wasn’t totally surprised by anything they did in the first 5 years because I had worked with so many children, I truly felt I had seen it all – every illness under the sun, food allergies, blistering diaper rashes, babies who resisted sleep to the bitter end, toilet training, biting, temper tantrums, trips to emergency rooms…
What was surprising was my emotional response to being a parent. I simply wasn’t prepared for what I was feeling.
We all have preconceived notions of parenting, based on our own experience and what we’ve observed in others as they parent. “I’ll never talk to my baby like that!”, “I want to be a just like her when I have a baby – she’s so patient!”, “I’m going to do things so different from my parents!” We imagine a baby that smiles, coos, sleeps all night, takes milk easily and is content.
Then we have that baby.
And it’s not exactly like we thought it would be. Who knew that breastfeeding would hurt so much or that your baby wouldn’t latch properly and scream incessantly because they’re hungry? Who knew that you would get a total of 4 hours of sleep at night between feedings and poopy diapers? Who knew about purple crying, for crying out loud (pun intended)??
Who knew I would feel like I was losing my identity as an energetic, fun-loving, somewhat interesting person?
With time, we all adjusted. Breastfeeding got easier and felt more natural. The baby got her days and nights right side up and we all began to get some sleep. We found our rhythm and contentment with one another. Until it ended.
A new stage of development, a life crisis, another baby entering the mix, going back to work… each of these disrupted the rhythm and routine, requiring us to all figure it out again. This wasn’t exactly what I thought parenting would be like.
I had to do some developing of my own, I had to mature, learn, grow and relax as a mom.
The stages of parenting we experience in the first years continue to cycle through as babies grow up, becoming teenagers and then adults.
Researcher Ellen Galinski, president of the Families and Work Institute, describes the first stage of parenting as “image making”. It’s the way we think about having a child, what our child will be like, what our interactions will be like, what our responses will be like, what it will feel like to be a parent. Here’s how it’s described:
In the image making stage, parents begin to shape their role as parents even before the baby is born. They create pictures in their minds of what lies ahead as they prepare for birth, adoption and parenthood. And this imagining of what lies ahead is a lifelong process. As they go through every stage of parenting, they continue to work with these images. Growth occurs when parents modify an image to be more consistent with reality or modify their own behavior to reach toward an image. She says that while some parents resist or turn away from growth, the research indicates that people do change, that parenthood itself is a transforming experience.
Our job is to nurture and take seriously the job of helping that child grow into who they were created to be.
As for me, I’m currently in the stage of parenting adults. I suppose throughout their lives I imagined what it would be like when I’m ‘old’ and they’re living their own lives, fully autonomous and independent, growing and thriving. What I didn’t expect is that we’d live so far apart! We stay connected through FaceTime and text, we love our time together and we’re working through this new era of parent-child relationship, just like we’ve done for the last 28 years.
And I LOVE it! Just like every other stage of development from infancy on up, I marvel at my children and am thankful for them.
So a word of encouragement to new parents: you’ve got this! Who you are is exactly what your baby needs, even when the image of yourself as a parent you’d conjured doesn’t quite meet up with reality.
It’s going to be okay, trust yourself and trust your baby.
Until next time,