The Truth About Parenthood

Posted On: 07.30.12

Sometimes, I have this imaginary conversation with an imaginary friend who is days from giving birth to her first child. In this fictional scenario, we are huddled at a small table in a coffee shop and she, my fictional friend who is about to pop, shifts uncomfortably in her wooden chair and plucks errant blueberry muffin crumbs from her cleavage.

She asks me for advice. Because I have been there, and three times now, and my kids seem to her healthy and happy. To her, I am a relatively seasoned member of the Mother Species and she wants me to share the secrets. She asks me one question as she traces small circles around her bulging belly button, just one part of her anatomy that will never be the same.

What’s the one thing I need to know?

She asks me this question while fixing me with her eyes, eyes that shimmer with excitement and fear and anticipatory love. I can tell that she is literally hungry for information, for a piece of wisdom that will work to sate and to soothe, for a little gem that will get her through. She clutches her belly, a belly that is powerful in its roundness, a belly that is full of life, a belly that will be empty so soon.

And everything about this scene makes me smile. The coffee shop full of strangers seeking caffeine and connection. My friend – puffy but beautiful too, full of an intelligent and endearing panic I recognize. Her question – foolish in its simplicity, gorgeous in its gall.

And my mind does its jig, rumbling with all the bits I have learned – secrets about strollers and swaddles, secrets about nursing pillows and boob tents, secrets about the magic of meeting other new moms and believing only half of what they say (something about fresh motherhood makes us candy-coat the early days), but as all of these things flit through my mind, a single sentence arrives. A simple sentence. One that is stark and undeniably true. Bitter. Unsweetened. Like the coffee I drink.

She leans in, my friend, as if she knows I have it, the secret to share.

Parenthood is hard, I say.

She shrinks a bit in her chair, no doubt deflated. But I am quick to elaborate, fired up now:

Here’s the thing. One day you are a person with a belly and then suddenly you are a person with a baby. And you will love that baby in a way that you can neither fathom nor articulate. This love will be fierce in essence, something that grips you and guides you. You will want, and immediately, to get it right. You will want to be good at this, this elusive thing you are suddenly and desperately immersed in doing, this nurturing of a tiny creature you have created. And you will quickly realize that there is no Right. There are people who will say things. There are books that will say things. All of these things will commingle and conflict and conspire to confuse you.

You will cry. From joy. From crippling fear. From exhaustion. You will have moments when you feel alive and invincible, when your instincts are golden and then you will have moments when you are a puddle, when the baby is crying and you are too and it is dark outside and morning seems like it will never come. But it will come. It always does.

It’s not just the early days either. The days when your milk is coming in, or not coming in, when you are shredded with fatigue and lost in a wilderness of hormones and change. It’s all the days after, too. They will be hard. They will be stuffed with moments of confusion and guilt and piercing love. They will be full of questions and conundrums and frustrations and fears, but they will also be laced with the most incredible sense of satisfaction that you are doing important and invaluable work. Work that is, if you are doing it honestly, if you are doing it “right”, hard.

When I finish my hushed-but-heated monologue on motherhood, I am surprised by something: My fictional friend is smiling. And this baffles me and delights me in equal measure.

Thank you, she says. Maybe this sounds kind of crazy, but I am looking forward to the struggle.

And her words, to me, don’t sound crazy at all. They sound honest. They sound real. For one delicious moment, I imagine a world where we women, we moms and almost-moms and non-moms, have coffee and muffins and talk instead of casting dispersions and judging. A world where Maternity Leave is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, where some of us stay home and some of us go to an office, but all of us, each and every one of us, works and hard.Β  A world where we acknowledge, tacitly, triumphantly, truly, the work that we are doing – individually, collectively, imperfectly, lovingly. The work that we are doing well, and not so well sometimes. A world where we are humble and reverent and real about the fact that when it comes to parenthood, and to life, really, most of us are trying. And hard.

It’s getting dark outside, in my dream world, as day dips toward night, and we stand to go. I throw my arms around my friend, capturing her in an awkward and abiding hug. And I feel it, a twinge of something between envy and empathy, a tiny taste of the magical murkiness she’s about to muddle through.

Good luck, I say.

Thanks, she says, her smile wild and wide, and then she takes my hand, puts it on her belly. And I feel it, a pointy little something, rolling along the surface of her skin.

I think it’s her elbow!, she says, her beautiful eyes brimming with a breed of awe I know oh so well.

Do you agree that parenthood is both wonderful and hard? What advice do you have (from the super-practical to the super-philosophical) for parents-to-be? What do you wish someone had told you about parenthood before you became a parent? Why do you think we women are so quick to judge each other and the choices we make (and don’t make) vis-a-vis motherhood?


Be Sociable, Share!

Oh, and...

How to Write via Colson Whitehead forΒ The New York Times... Love this!



17 Comments for: "The Truth About Parenthood"
  1. I love this. Yes, hard. But oh, oh so wonderful. I never really thought about being a mother – it was something I always assumed I’d do but I was not really focused on planning it, I’d never babysat, etc. My sister was the maternal one. And when I had my children (the first in an unplanned way, an event that redirected the rest of my life) it upended my world. In good and bad ways, in the short term, but all good in the long term.

    Advice? I’d say don’t be afraid to let them cry a little when they’re babies in the night. Don’t go in without letting them fuss for a few minutes (maybe up to 5-7) – they make noise in their sleep and are not always awake. This can also be accomplished by having the baby in their own room (not yours) and not using a monitor! That was my strategy.

    Also, I would simply say pay attention. Take photographs, keep your eyes and ears open. Just be there. It’s all they want, in my opinion, and you will see and experience things that blow you away. Such a cliche and so true.


    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Such good bits of advice, Lindsey. Thanks. I agree with both. I learned to let my girls fuss (even cry) a bit and it was so hard, but so worth it. All three of them have become very good sleepers, skilled at the “art” of self-soothing, and it has profoundly improved our experience as parents… All 3 of our girls are asleep by 7:30 every night and Husband and I can settle into a night to ourselves – dinner, conversation. I do not take this for granted and I think that focusing so thoughtfully on sleep stuff in the early days and months really really helped.

      And, yes, pay attention. I tell myself that this is so much of what this blog is about. That it is about really looking and seeing them, and this life, and paying homage to the images and lessons. That it is about memorializing moments big and small. But then of course I worry that I am missing so much by having such an intense and abiding desire to “notice.” Does that make sense?

      Love that you shared some very practical things here. I think I will pop in throughout the day and scribble down the more practical things I have learned in my 5-plus years of being a mom. I know I would have loved to find such a repository of “advice” as I pondered becoming a mom for the first time.

      Hope you are good. Can you believe it is almost August? Nuts. xox

    • Dara

      Oh how I wish someone had told me to let her cry and crank here and there. It took me months to figure that out. Good advice.

  2. Sam

    “For one delicious moment, I imagine a world where we women, we moms and almost-moms and non-moms, have coffee and muffins and talk instead of casting dispersions and judging.”

    I love this. In the midst of all the drum banging about defining feminism and “having it all,” wouldn’t it be better if we could all sit down and just talk? Wouldn’t it be better if we could check our judgment at the door and have honest and real conversations about our choices rather than trying to fit each choice with a pre-determined label? It is time for us to recognize, finally, that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. That we are all working hard at the life and the choices we choose.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Wouldn’t that really be amazing? If we could just discuss these things – our questions, our choices, our confusions – without rushing to judgments, without professing knowledge of the inherently unknowable. I know it’s a long shot, but let’s continue to imagine this world. Thanks, you.

  3. Lindsey

    One of my dearest friends had her first child, a boy, this morning at 3:38. Such an appropriate entry for today – I sent it to her immediately. This is the same piece of advice I give whenever asked (always with the disclaimer that I’m no expert, and I’m sure there are others with more useful practical tips). But it is absolutely hard. And made harder because, as you note, there are those among us who either (1) just have an easier time or an easier baby, or (2) don’t have an easier time or an easier baby but say that they do. And it’s hard to find your way through it all in those early weeks and months. But at the same time, so fantastic and rewarding and beautifully emotional. The best thing I do, even through the struggles, for certain.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Thank you so much, Lindsey. For these words – to which I relate, and immensely. And for sending my post to your friend. I hope she reads it and it makes her smile. What an exciting and wild time for her, right? And want to know something nuts? I was born at 3:38am. How’s that for crazy? πŸ™‚

  4. Oh, such loaded questions, Aidan! I mean, if you’re 21 and having a baby, then YES, parenting is going to be HARD! But, for me? I was 36 and married before I had my first child. I had come into my own person, felt financially stable and was in a solid marriage at the time of my pregnancy. I’ve been pretty laid back about pregnancy and parenthood so far (including our son’s 5-week stay in the NICU). I try not to sweat the small stuff (or the big stuff, for that matter). I don’t expect our son to be first at everything or anything, but I do expect him to show up and try … and have fun along the way (I have the same expectations on my husband and me as parents, too). I think that takes a lot of pressure off me as a parent (as does a child in daycare, because his teachers are such a big help on the teaching front). If I had to summarize, I’d say parenting was one of the best choices I ever made and has led to some huge changes in our life, but I don’t think it’s hard. Not yet at least – I reserve the right to change my mind at any point going forward. =)

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Oh, so happy to have your perspective! I think there is hard (standard issue exhaustion and confusion and frustration) and Hard (financial woes, health concerns, marital strife), but I guess my feeling is that if we are really immersed and entrenched in it, there is an essential – and, yes, exquisite – struggle at the core of parenting little people. It is not bad, not in the slightest, but it is hard – as in requiring constant and evolving effort and exertion. Always so happy to see you here, Nilsa πŸ™‚

  5. Britta

    Hi Aidan,
    I am days away from giving birth to my first and your post was exactly what I needed to read today. I was teary and smiling while I read it. The fear of childbirth, of change and of having a child who needs me in a way that no one has ever needed me before has at times felt isolating – even though I know I’m not the first to feel this way! So thank you for your advice and for this post.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Britta! I am so so excited for you. I remember that anticipatory time oh so well. It is so full and scary and real. I know that you are probably a bit anxious – understandably – but everything will be great. Yes, it will be hard, but good hard. Good luck. You will be wonderful. All will be wonderful. I know it πŸ™‚

  6. Dara

    You nailed it. That’s my advice to all the parents-to-be in my life. There is no Right. You can read every book, cull every trusted opinion, but your baby doesn’t have an instruction manual. She only has you. And nobody will know her better.

    Except of course on the days when you don’t. And that’s when the wine comes in handy. πŸ˜‰

  7. Amy

    Oh, this is wonderful. You’ve articulated it just right. I have so much to say, but cannot do justice to a response to your beautiful words right now…Just know that they touched my heart and the hearts of many others.

  8. I wish someone would have had this conversation with me before I had my first child! Everyone told me how wonderful parenthood and babies are…and they are, but no one ever hinted at the struggles involved. That’s why I turned to mommy-blogs after the birth of #1 – I was desperate to find out if I was the only one or not. Turns out, everyone struggles. And that’s OK.

    I’ve been to several baby showers since my initiation into motherhood, and when they pass around those “advice & wishes cards” I always write something like: Motherhood will be the most difficult and the most amazing thing you’ve ever experienced…and always remember to trust your instincts -because even in the most frustrating and terrifying moments (cause there will be plenty of those), You (and only you) will always be The. Best. Mother. to your child.
    Hopefully my words surface in their minds when they feel like they are in over their heads – because those fluffy wishes of good cheer don’t really matter when it’s 2am and you’ve only slept 2 hours!

    p.s. enjoy your weeks of being un-plugged (summer months are just naturally anti-technology in my opinion!) πŸ™‚

  9. s

    Such a reassuring piece of writing. As I’m half way through my pregnancy, your words are those that you don’t often see. Sure, I have friends who are harried and tired, overworked, overstressed and stretched thin. But the simple words “its hard” seem both powerful and reassuring at the same time. Thank you for your insight and reassurance.

  10. Amy

    I love reading about your posts as a mother and parenthood and your darling children. Have you ever thought about writing a post about people who choose not to have children? Their reasons why and your thoughts on people who choose not to?

  11. Leigh

    Although I seldom post, I am a frequent reader…and felt compelled to respond to this thread.

    I am not a mother (yet! we just started trying) and what you said is the single largest reason I’m so scared to be a mother. I was one of three with a single working mother and at age 36 I’ve seen it all with my friends (and they are the kind who do tell the truth, who don’t judge, who their frustrations/fears/triumphs of being parents) So, as much as one ever can without having been a mother yet, I feel I truly DO UNDERSTAND just how HARD it is…

    However, for me, knowing how hard it is beats going into it thinking it is going to be all “rainbows and rose petals” as some people paint it to be. And let me be clear I’m not afraid of hard work itself…rather, fear of doing hard work and not doing if you are doing it right or wrong – the knowledge that you are responsible for this individual and the fear of screwing it up – and the fact that the kind of “hard work” that involves being a parent is something FAR, FAR, FAR more complex in its combination of physical, mental, and emotional demand I’ve ever done so far in my life – and honestly, the fear that I will resent my kids (something RARELY ever talked about or acknowledged by many even though it is a real thing).

    So I commend you for being brave and telling the truth – for reminding and encouraging us to all be humble, honest, and supportive rather than derisive or critical.

    And, as for the repository of mother advice – I would LOVE to see that compiled – tips, tricks, reminders, etc!!!

Add Your Comment

Feel free to leave an anonymous comment. a valid email is required for security purposes but will never be shared.