An article I read recently started out relatable enough. The author correctly pointed out that a lot of mothers become so engrossed in motherhood that it begins to define who they are, and sometimes it can feel like a mother is “just” a mom, not a person unto herself. The set up made it clear this was going to be a piece offering advice to guard against this all-too-familiar side-effect of motherhood. Excellent.
But then, she lost me with this line: “Now that I’m pregnant…” Oh. So she doesn’t get it yet.
I turned to the trusty comments section to see if I was being too judgmental. It wasn’t just me. There I read comment after comment reflecting the thing that all seasoned mothers know: until that kid is here, you have no idea. None. You are exceptionally ignorant of just how ignorant you are.
I don’t doubt this author had every intention to follow through with this advice to herself. She may even have succeeded. But I must admit that I will automatically tune out people who say, “When I have kids”.
That’s not to say people who don’t have children can’t give good advice about children. I taught preschool for many years before having children of my own, and the parents frequently sought advice from me. I knew children and I could give advice on children with confidence, knowledge, and experience.
But nothing prepares you for becoming a parent. It is so much more than the care and keeping of children. Nothing prepares you for having part of your brain preoccupied with another person at all times, even when you are sleeping; for how no matter what you are doing, whether you are physically with your child in the moment or not, your attention is permanently divided.
You think you understand that babies are exhausting, but you don’t. Beyond the sleep deprivation, having a human being who is completely dependent on you at all times is draining beyond measure. You cannot prepare for becoming another person’s entire world.
It’s great to say you won’t lose your identity as a person, but the difficulty in resisting that is something you can’t fully comprehend until you are immersed in it. It’s not permanent, and you do get yourself back; but it is nearly impossible to not feel like you exist solely for this child, at least for some time. And you have no idea how hard it will hit you until that child is laid in your arms.
Unless they are giving you sanctimonious, unwanted advice, there is no need to point any of this out to a childless person, or parent-to-be who is discussing their plans for when they have children. They will be speaking with conviction, confident in themselves and their beliefs, and you will know they have no idea; but let them have it. Telling them they don’t get it will frustrate you both. When the time comes, they will figure it out.
I think back to all the things I said to my mom while I was pregnant, and she just smiled and nodded. Years later, I quipped “You knew I was full of it, didn’t you?” She smiled and told me, “Yup.” She knew I’d learn like all parents do.
The unpreparedness isn’t all bad. There’s a brilliant song by folk singer Nancy White called “Mammas Have a Secret” in which she includes the line, “Mammas have a secret, daddies have too. It’s a little secret, they’ll never tell you. ‘cause if you don’t have a child so naughty and sweet, they don’t want you to feel that your life is incomplete. And if you have a child, there’s nothing to say. Because you know the secret anyway.”
There’s nothing that can prepare you for how overwhelming parenthood can be – but there is nothing that prepares you for how much you will love your child. “Mammas have a secret, daddies have too. You know it’s universal, but it feels brand new.” When that child enters your life, you become part of something bigger, and you can feel it.
As I walked the hospital halls, in labour with my first child, I crossed paths with a mother, holding a minutes-old baby, being wheeled to post-partum. She looked me in the eyes. I looked into hers. I knew in that moment that she had just been changed. She looked at me and smiled. She knew I was about to become someone new. Neither of us would ever be the same again. We were two people momentarily on opposite sides of the same metamorphosis. I have never forgotten that moment we shared.
So be kind to the childless parenting experts. They don’t understand, and that’s okay. If they have children at some point, they will get it. If they don’t, then they don’t need to get it. We were all them at one point. We were perfect parents until we had children.
Just smile and nod, and know they are full of it.