Things I’ve learned since becoming a mother

This is what Lily looked like at the time of my mother’s death in 2009. I had no idea what I was doing.

NOTE: This began as a column I wrote on Mother’s Day 2012 for, but because I thought this should really be a running list, that others could contribute to, I’ve given this its own page. Please feel free to add any lessons that I’ve forgotten in the comments. Thanks!

Sadly, on the heels of becoming a mom myself — when my first daughter, Lily, was just 8 months old — my own mother died suddenly, after a 14-year, on-again-off-again battle with breast cancer.

Though she’d spent her last years in North Carolina, I’d nonetheless planned and hoped to get some coaching from my mother as I got used to this whole “mom” thing. But it wasn’t to be. And consequently, I felt even more nervous and terrified about flying blind into this foreign world of all-consuming need.

The situation did, though, lead me to one of the many revelations I’ve had since becoming a mother — namely, that the care and feeding of a small child emotionally anchors you when tragedy strikes. You can’t lock out the world and grieve for days on end, because guess what? The baby needs changing. And feeding. And a bath. And wants to be held. And she might be crawling where she shouldn’t be. And she just put her hands on the toilet seat. And what’s that green stuff in her hair? Lettuce? Where did that come from?

In the moment, I thought I’d resent not being able to wallow in grief. But I didn’t. It was instead a blessing to have a baby to focus on while my mind struggled to process the impossible knowledge of no longer having a mother in the world.

At this same time, I learned that having a baby at a funeral — especially when she’s dressed in a cute outfit with a matching headband – is a boon for family and guests alike. In the face of death, there’s this little, hopeful face of life, in the form of a baby sitting on the entry hall’s floor, playing with your keys.

Since then, I’ve had a second daughter, as well as additional epiphanies, big and small. So as Mother’s Day approaches, here are a few things I’ve learned, or have come to understand, since becoming a mother.

  • “Twinkle, Twinkle” and the alphabet song are the same tune. Sounds stupid, I know, but before I sang both a million times, I hadn’t realized that.
  • Little kids are never in a hurry. Ever. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to something they want to do, or going to visit someone they want to see. You’re still going to have to physically herd them out the door for 20 minutes as they clutch at every distraction possible. They have no sense of time, and why should they? They’re only present in the moment — something we’re all urged to do, of course. But they’ve got the luxury of having no expectations or responsibilities.
  • Life is full of exceptions, and understandably, this is hard for kids to grasp. How many times do we, as parents, lay down the law while simultaneously allowing for exceptions? “Don’t ever hit anyone,” I recently told Lily, and then I paused and added, “Unless someone is hurting you, and you have to defend yourself.” A friend of mine added several great examples to this list: “Rule #1: Don’t play with fire. Unless it’s the 4th of July, then hold onto this stick as I light it and it shoots sparks all over the place. Rule #2: Never, ever run into the road. Unless there is a parade and people are throwing candy and then I’ll tell you it’s okay to run into the street with cars driving by to pick it up. Rules #3 and #4: Never take candy from strangers and always say please and thank you. Unless it’s Halloween, when you go up to any porch with a light on and scream at the top of your lungs ‘Trick or Treat!'”
  • Similarly, parents are often faced with what appears to be a lose-lose choice. Here’s an example: After I signed Lily up for a ballet/tap class, she decided, after a couple of months, that she wanted to do something else instead, like an art class. Cut to me kvetching about the potentially harmful message that’s sent, regardless of which path we took: Namely, if we let her stop the lessons, we seemed to be conveying to my then-3 year old that when things get tough, you quit; yet if we made her stay with dance classes, she’d likely resent being powerless, and having no say in the matter, so she’d likely come to hate dancing on principle. I’m no tiger mother; we took the easier, former path, deciding that she’s just a 3-year-old, and we should encourage her to try and explore all kinds of things. But in the back of my mind, I’m still wondering if there will be negative consequences from our choice down the road. Oy.
  • One reason that parents are so sleep deprived, even when the kids sleep through the night, is, there’s so, so much you want to cram into the little bit of time each day that you have for yourself. The result is often that you find yourself at midnight, or 1 a.m., just getting to bed, because you had to do the dishes and some laundry first, but then you also wanted to exercise, and watch “Mad Men,” and read a bit of that book for your book group, and write a little something for your blog, and…
  • This brings me to my next revelation, which I mentally think of as “TASTD” — the family-friendly version of which is, “There’s always stuff to do.” (Another friend’s suggested “a mom’s Robert Frost,” which was, essentially, “And tons to do before I sleep.”) There’s no end, no bottom, to the items that need to be done while taking care of children. And I didn’t quite get that before. As a kid, I remember thinking, “You throw some clothes in the washing machine once in a while, you do dishes, you’re done. It can’t be that big of a deal.” But on a recent night, I remember thinking, while my husband put our 4-year-old to bed: I’ve got to put the bottle bag freezer packs away and wash the bottles; empty the Diaper Genie and replenish the diapers; fold the laundry that’s been in the dryer for two days; get Lily’s book order filled out; re-pack her snack bag; pump milk for Neve; get the trash and recycling together for tomorrow’s pick-up — on and on and on. It’s endless. And you have to make peace with that.
  • Which is related to my next lesson, which is, when you’ve got two kids under 4, trying to contain the chaotic mess of your house is a lost cause, so just do the best you can. I’ve lately been reminding myself that no one lies on their deathbed thinking, “I wish I’d kept a neater house.”
  • Second children are, in at least one way, easier than first children, in that they’re pretty constantly entertained by the older child. I remember, with Lily, singing and pushing her hand onto touch-and-feel books while thinking, “I have no clue how to engage with a baby. How does this work? What do they like and need?” But with Neve, I just sit her where she can see Lily at all times, and we’re pretty much golden.
  • Capri pants are an unofficial summer uniform for a lot of moms not just because they’re comfortable and modest, but because many of us, after having a couple of kids, have legs that resemble a topographical map. I’ll just leave it at that.
  • When you have little ones, family dinners are a stressful, daily struggle — a worthwhile one in the long run, perhaps, but a pain in the short run. My husband is the cook, and he arrives home later than I do, so it’s usually 7 p.m. when we eat; the baby’s tired by then, and Lily’s ravenous when I pick her up from preschool, so I allow her to eat two snacks; and when we finally sit down to eat, Lily is thrumming with hummingbird-like energy and curiosity and can barely stay in her chair, so we admonish her to sit, but she still springs up from time to time (“I’m just going to get something”); and because she’s a picky eater, she may refuse the meal my husband’s worked hard to prepare, or want to negotiate the amount that would qualify her for dessert, while Neve surprises me by being able to reach over her tray and pull down the baby food onto the floor. Ta-da!
  • The gift that parents (especially those with little ones) want more than anything, and which is so tough to give, is time. (Naps are really, really nice, too.) When kids are little and at their most exhausting and irrational, the thing moms want more than anything on Mother’s Day is to have to do as little mothering as possible. My husband and I have arrived at this notion and are happier for it. On Father’s Day, I take the girls for a walk, out to a girls-only brunch, which Joe goes for a run, or reads the papers, or takes a nap, or any combination of those things. Likewise, on my day, Joe finds a way to take the girls out for a while, and I get the opportunity to do the same. It’s can’t miss.
  • Bibs aren’t just for mealtimes, they’re for all times. The drool, my God, the drool! I had no idea babies were such little slobber machines. And as a little bonus tip, heed this: don’t get your 6 month old a onesie with an adorable or funny saying on it, because it will always either be under a bib, or get so drenched so fast that you’ll have to change the baby into something else, anyway.
  • Potty training may not be a process that takes a few weeks or a few months. In the worst cases – ahem – it might take a year and a half. Or more. Sorry to break the news, new parents, but it’s true. We got our hopes up when, at 2, Lily expressed an interested in using the potty at daycare. Woo-hoo! But then came the constant rollercoaster of, she’s got it! She’s completely backslid! She’s got it again! The baby’s arrival has caused more backsliding! She clearly knows now when she needs to go; but she’s still occasionally pooping her pants. For the longest time, we were patient, encouraging, and acted like we didn’t care that much one way or the other. Then, after months and months of this craziness – with her sometimes throwing a screaming, hitting-fists-on-the-ground tantrum about not wanting to change her clothes, despite having shat upon herself – we got on a repeating cycle of bribes, threats, apathy, bribes, threats, apathy … I truly wanted, at times, to just call it a day and go with adult disposable undergarments when she got too big for Pull-Ups. And though things are better now, just today, at age 4 and a few months, she peed her pants at preschool. I’ve just given up at the moment. Worrying doesn’t solve it, or it would have been solved long ago.
  • Date days are way better than date nights, if you can swing them. Because of the nature of our jobs, the kids are in daycare/preschool each weekday; and because there are so few real “vacation” options for those with small children (who want a real rest, and to get a break), Joe and I have some vacation days to burn. So once every 2 or 3 months, we plan a day to play hooky together, so we can do the things we used to do as a childless couple on Sundays: read the paper; go for a run or a bike ride; maybe see a movie; take a nap – the options are deliciously broad. And it does wonders for re-connecting with your spouse, which is so important when you’re both constantly caught up in parenting duties.

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