Parenthood is the ultimate humbling experience. Its constancy and challenges are the sort of things one can't really prepare for in a way commensurate with the demands of its reality. I always wanted to be a mother; specifically, an at-home mother. I read all the books, took the requisite classes, learned everything I could about birthing, nursing, safety, eating, sleeping and early-education. Some of what I discovered altered my own habits even before my first was born, and much of what I studied did prepare me well for the concrete elements of being a mom..
What I didn't know, perhaps what I couldn't have known, were the intangible bits and pieces that actually construct much of a parent's being and often feel more vexing and critical. For me this has been especially true as my sons have gotten older. These less-rosy, more existential dilemmas are what really bring me to my knees, but they are also what can provide a greater sense of understanding, fulfillment and connection to the boys.
10 Important Lessons I've Learned Since Becoming a Mom
1. Figure out the values and traits you most want to instill and hone in your children and work assiduously towards those from Day 1. I believe I can safely generalize by stating that kids aren't born with a hell-bent desire to write thank you notes or eat like civilized beings. We have to model and teach those things, as well as important values like kindness, gratitude, generosity and honesty. I haven't found that there's much room for laziness and corner-cutting in strong parenting, especially when kids are young and formative. Each step counts for something so don't squander opportunities. It's a lot easier to consistently teach toward the optimal behavior than to have to backtrack and retrain later.
Trust me: despite advice to the contrary, we let our dog jump on us when he was a cute, four-pound puppy and now suffer daily from an incredibly ill-trained, 25 pound pug.
2. My kids are not clones of me or my husband; do not expect yours to be either. Love them for that. Children are unique brews of what they get from their biological parents, their extended families and, for fun and giggles, some newly combinant stuff. Each is a singular, unprecedented being. Please love them for who they are rather than for who you hoped they would be. Staying open to the myriad possibilities of each child makes it that much easier to adore and appreciate them through the hard, surprising times. If I expected my kids to respond and behave exactly as I would, I'd be frustrated 90 percent of the time.
You get the kids you get; accept that great (and often tremendously challenging) fact and move on. With them! If they know that they are loved for the individuals they are, I think they're much more likely to trust and follow your guidelines. Acceptance breeds openness too. If they trust you with their hearts, the lines of communication between you will stay open, and that is invaluable.
3. Find a time, place or way in which you can fall in love with each child again. Make this simple so that you can do it daily if you need to. I have found this an incredibly important tactic because (and this is something too few people tell you or admit) some days are so hard that you will actually dislike some or all of your kids. You will look at them as if they are alien devil spawn who have trespassed into your home to wreak havoc on your psyche. If they are old enough, they will likely enjoy your horrified stupefaction which makes the whole experience that much more infuriating. You will feel a desperate need to like them anew.
Without fail, I treasure mine in unadulterated fashion when I go into their rooms each night after they're asleep. They are soft and sweet, quiet and innocent. I sit beside them in the silence and fall in love again.
4. Be ready to be your child's biggest, most ferocious-in-a-lovely-way advocate. I can almost guarantee you that every child will need an advocate at least once (but probably more like 85 times) in his/her life. If you get off with once, you are parenting the equivalent of the Willy Wonka Golden Bar, so really, don't expect that. Advocacy, which is standing up for your child and his/her needs, can be as simple as having a clarifying talk with another parent about what happened during the playdate. It can be a more difficult discussion with your child's school about a bully whose behavior towards your child is seriously problematic. It can be within your nuclear or extended family about your own parenting philosophies. Advocacy is not always easy, but neither is parenting.
In my opinion, advocacy and loving your child for who he/she is often go hand in hand. If you are truly committed to honoring your child's inner self, you'll be able to see more clearly those aspects of him/her that need support in some way.
5. Firm and consistent discipline IS your friend. Ever meet a child and think, "Wow, what a nightmare!" Of course you have. In all likelihood, that child has never been told "No." Cultivate kids that you and others enjoy spending time with. This is more difficult because it requires discipline and consistency in message over a long time. Exhausting yes, but the pay-offs are obvious anytime you meet an adult from whom you immediately want to run.
Going back to Point 1, identify behaviors that you like and admire in self and others and figure out ways to nurture those in your own kids. The thank-you note is a simple but clear example. I don't know anyone who doesn't respond positively to hand-written appreciation. Model that, teach it, enforce it, and at some point, thank-yous will become second nature to your kids even if via obligatory guilt from the maternal voice on their shoulders. This will likely cause friction at times, but I'd rather the kids be mad at me on occasion (note: they're going to get mad and dislike you sometimes anyway) and turn out to be nice people than to attempt to please them all time and turn out entitled dictators.
6. Be willing to keep learning, change your mind and don't sweat the unimportant stuff. There are so many potential conflicts in raising kids. Some are critical and others are completely inconsequential. I have had to learn to simply let some things go, because then, when it's really important and I have to dig my heels in, I am taken more seriously. At the end of the day, this is better for everyone. They see that mom can both make mistakes and change her mind in light of new information and their valid opinions, and they learn from that.
Would I rather the boys brush their teeth OR wear things that match? Well, although I find it odd when my 6-year-old insists on wearing bright orange-red shorts and that same color shirt plus green and blue striped socks to school, I've learned to just think, "Ok, man. If you want to look like a shock of fire all day, be my guest." He feels empowered in his choice, and I don't have to look at gross teeth.
7. It is often wise to take your child's version of a predicament with a loving grain of salt. I'm talking about kids in the 10-and-under range here as I don't have experience with older ones who might be more prone to objective re-tellings. If your child complains like mad every week before Tae Kwon Do but then leaves class raving about it, it's likely he doesn't actually hate it. Listening to your kids is important but so is teaching them about sticking to a commitment. It's important to know your child so that you can discern between true need and trivial chatter.
8. Be involved but not enmeshed. This might be one of the places in which I laze out, but I actually don't care too much about what the kids do at school all day. We worked hard to find a school that we could trust with the boys' academic and social-emotional growth, and because we found that gold mine, I have since taken a load off. Sure, I'm curious about who their friends are and what they enjoy learning, and I want to know about their relationships with their teachers. But, I don't need to know exactly what they did every minute of every hour. It's the perfect place for them to begin living their own lives.
Likewise, you can host a playdate and not participate in it. I learned this late in the game, and it was liberating. Create safe spots -- their rooms, a basement or play area -- and let them go. Same is true for birthday parties: if it's a drop-off, drop those babies off. They will learn that they can do it, and that is an amazing boost of confidence for them.
9. Sometimes, it's best to Just Say Yes. Kids can be pretty boring and repetitive, but they can also be hilarious, creative, slap-your-ass fun. Follow their lead by just saying yes sometimes to the games and ideas they propose (within reason of course). What may initially seem like a dull waste of time will often turn into one of the best bonding, stuff-of-memories experiences ever. Also, when you just say yes, you might find they take later "not right now's" a bit better.
10. You MUST take time for yourself when you can. Just do it. In retrospect, I believe I have been too "on" for basically all of my boys' lives. No wonder they have trouble considering that when I say I need space or quiet time, I really mean it. The struggle to get it further depletes me. By teaching your children that your time is valuable too, they will learn that you are more than mom, and you will benefit from having space.