By the time my husband and I announced the arrival of our first child we had accumulated thirty years of clichés on the topic of parenthood. In particular, “Time goes by so fast when you have kids,” “Every baby is beautiful,” “Every child is a miracle,” and, our favorite one to ignore, “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever have.” Confident that our combined IQ’s would outrank a child, assured of our ability to pick up menial tasks quickly, and overall proud of the fine, responsible, young adults that we had become, we snickered behind closed doors: “How hard can it be to take care of a kid? Feed ‘em, change diapers, cuddle, repeat, right?”
How hard indeed. If you’re a parent, take your time easing the cramp in your side that will inevitably come from the hysteria induced by our naiveté. If you’re a soon-to-be-parent thinking similar secret thoughts, consider this fair warning.
For me, a stay-at-home-mom, it wasn’t the loads of laundry, dirty dishes, perpetual dust bunnies, jeans-and-t-shirt “momiform,” lack of contact with adults, trimming tiny fingernails, having chunks vomited on me, or cleaning blowout diapers that shot poop straight up her back to her armpits that freaked me out in the beginning.
It was scratchy-throated nights trying to warble a lullaby only to realize I couldn’t remember any of the lyrics and every single last one of them contained a note just out of reach; it was trying to breastfeed for the first time with a nurse yanking my boob and casually tossing about my new little one who had wires attached to her head and chest; it was the debilitating shock that despite books, conversations, and classes about how to parent with ease, our child had not read, conversed, or attended any of them with us, nor did she care; it was realizing with certainty that Starbucks does not have enough caffeine in the store to support a mother’s exhaustion – because a mother’s exhaustion is not just physical; it was threatening to pound to a pulp whichever person dared to sneeze, stomp, or laugh when the baby was sleeping because I wasn’t sure what it was that would cause her to wake up, but I was convinced that I could physically harm the person who did it; it was forgetting which day of the week it was and realizing that it didn’t really matter anyway because weekends no longer existed; it was crying uncontrollably when my husband gave me the best birthday present I have ever received – staying home from work on my birthday so I could have an extra set of hands with our 6-month-old.
It was hard because everything I had ever been taught about independence went right out the door with my vacation days. The independent person I had become was now responsible for a dependent combination of genes, body fluid, soul, organs, and skin. Just like that, I was stripped of my independence – something I had been taught to this point was the mark of a mature adult – and left in an odd identity void that mixed dependence, independence, caffeine, and co-dependence in an uncomfortable reality.
Parenthood is the hardest job in the world because everything that you have come to value in yourself to this point – independence, stability, knowledge, flexibility, and spontaneity – is yanked from your control. It is the hardest job in the world because you are becoming a completely different person.
Parenting is a makeover. Never before have I had to so completely, fully, and irrevocably alter my habits, my thoughts, my activities, my concerns, and my priorities. In no other experience has my physical, mental, and emotional state been so wrecked simultaneously for such an extended period of time.
Just as we were figuring out how to appreciate our infant, she became a toddler and the hardest job in the world got easier and harder in a cycle I suspect is bound to continue for the rest of my life. It was easier because we had learned a couple lessons from her infancy; harder because the toddler now changed the game.
It is not any one particular thing that will overwhelm a parent caught between the emotional turmoil of a newborn and the physical exhaustion of a toddler. In that time a parent will be torn apart by a thousand pricks on their state of normalcy and stability. In that time thousands of decisions will have been made about eating and discipline and word choice and encouragement and clothing and cartoons and activities and friends and priorities and doctor visits. In that time new parents will have cleared hundreds of odd hurdles just as the new child raises another challenge, and so on to perpetuity.
It was exciting when she started talking and we thought we might finally understand what she was communicating without twenty minutes of yodeling; then we realized that we were largely responsible for putting context to her world. We talked about colors, directions, shapes, nouns, verbs, numbers, letters, names, places, tastes, smells, feelings, faith, relatives, animals, manners, food, houses, schools, church, grocery stores, gyms, toys, sports, multiplication tables, continents, politics, adjectives, books, bodily functions, and textures. All. The. Time.
It also meant that our conversational techniques, which had been equitable and even charitable to this point, were now drastically changed to omit yes/no questions to which “no” was always the standard answer, no exceptions.
Then she started walking, and, in another of God’s greatest jokes, we realized what our neighbors had meant when they said, “Everything changes when they start walking.” What they meant was, “She will not sit down and will expect the same from you.”
From “Good Morning!” to “Sleep Tight” we run, jump, skip, dance, tickle, kick, twirl, flip, bounce, march, squat (Oh the squats!), launch, throw, kneel, stand, toss, roll, wiggle, squirm, bend, clap, shake, push, pull, swing, lift, hug, kiss, pat, squeeze, smoosh, crawl, waddle, scoot, and fly. Every thirty minutes.
All of our personal belongings are now kept on a ledge or shelf at least five feet tall and not close to any climbing paraphernalia. We have agreed to live without toilet paper on the roll dispenser and have opted instead to put it on the back of the toilet or sink – within reaching distance to a squatter but not a toddler.
We grappled with how to teach skills that we knew but had no idea how we had learned. I made a mental note to thank my mom for teaching me how to use a spoon after I tried breaking down the process for my nearly one-year-old who had a vocabulary of ten words.
Combine the toddler’s incurable fascination with everything and the attention span of a gnat and you wonder, “How do I teach a child to be aware of herself and her surroundings?” You wonder that question every time you shout an apology to a biker or runner who had to make a wide circle around your toddler who was swerving for no apparent reason while pointing and exclaiming “Oh!”; you wonder when your child almost walks into a lamppost because her head is turned in curiosity looking at something behind her; and you wonder every time she flattens another child on the playground because she’s going 100-mph while looking at her feet moving so fast in her snazzy new shoes.
In short, parenthood requires you to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present 100% of the time for, in my two-and-a-half years of experience, 913 days in a row. No weekends, no vacations, no sick days, no excuses. You will sacrifice privacy and sleep and control. Creativity will be demanded daily for entertainment, discipline, and development. You perform with heightened sensitivity to sharp corners, household toxins, and nagging knowledge of too much bad in the world. You are expected to teach but to do so you must learn – and hope that you can learn faster than you need to teach. You fail daily.
The hardest part is being willing to learn something new every day, sometimes every hour, and often something contrary to what you thought you already knew. You are reminded constantly that you don’t know everything, even if to this point you were considered fairly educated. It is all quite humbling, really.
You will encounter a few boo-boos, need an occasional reality-check, and touch something you don’t want to in the process. Accept that when, in this case, two adults and a child are becoming new people, it’s bound to create chaos. And then, when your infant has been screaming for an hour so that you can no longer hear anything or your toddler has gone two feet in forty minutes because she’s stopping to examine everything, zone out for a second to remember that the person they are becoming, and that you are becoming, is exciting and amazing and wonderfully made.
In short, parenthood teaches you what a new child discovers instinctively: being open to the unexpected will rock your world, change your life, and transform your identity – but no one said anything about it being easy.