The last five months since my baby was born have taken on that strange elastic quality where the time has flown by, but also feels like about 100 lifetimes. There have been many tears (hers and mine!) and many moments of happiness as we have got to know each other and I have learnt how to look after her.
As I reflect on what I’ve learnt so far in my short career as a parent, I’ve realised that the lessons fall into two categories. The first category is the practical stuff — how to feed, change, bathe, soothe her. The second category is more emotional — that is, how she has changed my feelings and my attitudes.
I think that any big life change causes an emotional shift. When our world changes significantly, we never see things in quite the same way again. Our experiences change us and, very often, teach us.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt over the last few months:
1. Everyone is different
When it comes to pregnancy, birth and babies, there seem to be very few (if any) absolute rules. Everyone’s experiences seem to vary substantially, from how sick they felt during pregnancy to how well their baby sleeps through the night. However, despite this huge variance in experience, people fall over themselves to give advice to new parents. This can be quite difficult, not least because one person’s advice often directly contradicts another’s!
Advice can be useful in all areas of life. However, it is generally best to take advice from experts — people who have done a lot of research and have a lot of experience in a particular area. When it comes to parenting, most people are only experts in raising their own child, not anyone else’s.
I’ve learnt to be very selective about the advice I take on board. I listen to friends or experts whose parenting style matches mine, but I don’t expect their suggestions to work every time. Like everything in life, parenting is something that we all have to find our own way through.
2. With a baby things are harder….. but simpler
It’s true that many things become harder with a baby. Last-minute feeding and changing can make leaving the house frustratingly difficult and lugging around baby paraphernalia does not necessarily make for a relaxing outing.
However, I have also found that things with a baby are simpler. You don’t need to do much to have a good time. As adults, we have become desensitised to many activities because we have done them so often, but for a baby everything is new. Take swimming — for adults, swimming is an enjoyable but fairly ordinary experience. For a baby, the sensation of the water and the freedom to splash around can be thrilling.
Seeing the world through a baby’s eyes reminds you how exciting everything was when you were a child yourself, before you became old and world-weary! Sharing the baby’s joy helps you rediscover the excitement that can be found in simple things.
3. It’s all about perspective
I’ve got friends who continuously complain about how difficult it is having children. Of course they love their children, but they dwell on the drudgery, the exhaustion and the lack of freedom. I also have friends who rarely complain, who seem to accept and enjoy their family life.
What I’ve realised is that, as with everything in life, it is all about perspective. How we see things changes how we feel about them. If you see parenthood as one long chore, you are going to feel quite resentful and depressed. If you see it as meaningful and worthwhile, you are likely to feel much happier.
Of course, none of us are perfect and it can be very hard to maintain a rosy perspective when you’re dealing with a screaming child at 3 o’clock in the morning. I am certainly not known for my patience and, at times, have found things very challenging. However, when I’m having a rough time, I try to remind myself that (a) this is what I wanted and (b) I’m lucky to have her. That’s normally enough to shift my perspective and make me feel a bit better.
4. Everything changes
Babies change constantly. In the space of half an hour, they can go from crying to laughing to sleeping and back again. They are learning and developing all the time, which means that their moods, needs and routines are always changing.
I am somebody who likes to plan and organise my life, so I find this quite difficult. It is frustrating when I plan something (a walk, a swim, a trip to the mall), only to have the plan thwarted by a crying baby. It is disheartening when I get used to a certain sleeping pattern, only to have it ruined by a developmental leap.
What I’ve learnt is to lower my expectations. When I plan something, I don’t expect it to always work out and I try not to be disappointed when it doesn’t. I try not to get too attached to any particular routine, because I know it will soon change. Having a baby has encouraged me to release some of the rigidity from my life and try to take things as they come.
5. Babies are long-term projects
I am not by nature a patient person. I hate waiting and I hate wasting time. I therefore find it very frustrating when I spend an hour trying to put the baby down for a nap, only to have her wake up after two minutes. Or when I spend ages feeding her, only to have her throw up all over me and I have to start again.
To me, this feels like a waste of my time. I have put effort in and have nothing to show for it! However, I’ve started to realise that my fixation on being productive is simply not helpful or relevant when it comes to babies. A baby is not something to tick off a to do list. I need to look a bit more long-term.
I might spend many hours at the moment trying to get her to sleep or eat, but those hours are not “wasted” — they are hours when I am providing her with love and care, which will impact her for her whole life. I don’t see the result of my efforts in an immediate or tangible way, but that’s not to say they are in vain. I hope they go some way to helping her become the happy, confident person I want her to be.
6. You suddenly understand your own parents
Lots of people say that having a baby makes them appreciate their parents more. I’ve found that this is true, but not in the way I expected. I thought the appreciation would come from a practical sense — that is, I would feel grateful to them for all the feeding, changing and entertaining involved in looking after me as an infant.
In fact, whilst I am grateful to them for all that, the appreciation I have gained is much stronger in an emotional sense. That is, I can finally understand how much they have loved me and worried about me. It is only by becoming a parent that I have been able to appreciate the stress (and hopefully the joy!) I must have brought them over the years.
Having my own child means that I can finally see how amazing it is to see her laugh, how hard it is to see her cry and how heart-wrenching it will be when I finally have to let her go and make her own way in the world.
To sum up….
Before I had my baby, I imagined all the things that I would teach her, but I didn’t spend a moment thinking about what she would teach me. As it turns out, I have a lot to learn. I am just at the beginning of my life as a parent and I’m sure the lessons from the last five months are just the start of my education.
My first lessons are:
- Everyone’s different, so ignore (most of) the advice
- Babies help you see the joy in simple things
- How you see parenthood changes how you feel about it
- Everything changes, so lower your expectations
- Don’t expect an immediate reward for your efforts
- Your parents loved you more than you realised
Originally published at https://ontheroadtohappiness.org on May 17, 2020.