Learning on the job

I have always been a bit of a reader, and that is generally the way I learn best.  Of course it depends on the task – I tried to work out knitting once through reading and pictures and got all tangled up.  A few short sessions with my Mum and I was off and away!  So when I was pregnant, I read more than my fair share of baby books and blogs and forums, trying to figure out what we would need, and how the new addition would fit into the family.

One thing I often came across were lists titled things like “The Things No-One Told Me About Having a Baby”.  Some of the lists were great.  But one thing surprised me: they were often pretty much the same.  Since these lists have been floating around for years, I am pretty sure people have heard many of the common items (e.g. breastfeeding hurts, babies sometimes want to feed very often, you will feel crazy sometimes).  But still, I don’t think the lists are wrong.  I think they are just slightly mistitled, and would more accurately be called “The Things I Was Told, But Didn’t Truly Understand Until I Had a Baby”. Because here’s the thing.  Parenting a newborn is crazy, and no matter how much I knew that I would be tired, that I’d never get a day off, that babies are unpredictable and hard to understand, I think these are things that I really only fully grasped once I was on the job.

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I don’t say this to dismiss the experience of non-parents, not at all.  I fully believe that anyone can have valuable insights and good advice on parenting.  In fact, some of the worst advice I’ve had is from parents, and some of the best is from non-parents.  Everyone’s experiences are so different, which might actually be another reason that some of the lists out there fell a bit flat for me.  So here’s my version:
Five Things I Was Told, But Didn’t Truly Understand Until I Had a Baby

  1. You will feel their cries more deeply than you can imagine.
    I am generally fairly good at coping with babies crying.  I don’t love the sound, of course, but I know that babies cry, and can generally tune it out a bit.  But my baby? That’s a whole different story.  Once she hits a particular cry, even a short time listening leaves me exhausted and emotionally drained.
  2. You will understand their cries.
    When I was around new parents before I had a baby, they would say things like “oh, he’s hungry” or “she’s ready for a sleep”.  From time to time I got it, but mostly I just figured they were making it all up.  Don’t get me wrong, a good portion of the time they probably were making it up (I certainly was, and still am), but sometimes they probably really did know. Turns out when you spend so much time trying to figure a small person out, you do get to understand them!  It’s not always instant or instinctive, but it comes with time.
  3. Baby sleep can feel all consuming.
    I have known for a long time that babies don’t always sleep as long or as easily as you would like.  But until I was in the thick of a baby who preferred to sleep near (preferably on) a parent, and who went through periods of thinking day sleep was not really for her, I really didn’t understand just how much it could rule my life.  I remember planning all excursions carefully around her sleeps (we still do a bit), and being terrified that she would wake up.  I cancelled visits because she wasn’t sleeping well, and I spent way too much time worrying about it.  Sleep is still a challenge sometimes, but rarely does it feel so important and overwhelming as it did in the early days.  (And yes, I am aware we have a long way to go, and that we could return to that all consuming stage!)
  4. You forget the pain of labour.
    I’ve done painful things before.  I walked 100km in 30 hours.  I sat for my tattoo for 5.5 hours.  With both of these, it took several weeks or months to even consider doing them again.  Labour was more painful (or at least quite different) than either of them. But before I left the hospital, I was ready to think about doing it again.  Hormones are a magical thing, and they kicked in pretty instantaneously.  I remember pushing as a relief, not a pain.  I hardly even remember what happened after that.  All I remember is the relief that she was finally here.
  5. The days are long but the years are short.
    On the very worst of the newborn days, I was convinced that my baby would be the one who never stopped the screaming, who never slept through the night, who never grew out of the spewing.  Some days were pretty rough and seemed never ending.  But sure enough, here we are with a baby who rarely screams (she shouts instead), who spews a lot less, and who sleeps a lot more.  It just takes time. And that time will fly. Before you know it, instead of that screamy squishy wee thing you’ve got a baby who’s smiling and giggling and getting pretty close to crawling. I listen to a podcast called The Longest Shortest Time, which is about early parenthood.  Until I’d experienced it, I couldn’t have understood just how apt that title is.

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