50 days ago I added ‘mother’ and ‘parent’ to my list of titles (well, actually 52 days ago – it’s taken me a few days to finish this post!). Without a doubt, these last 50 days have been the hardest of my life. I had no idea just how physically, mentally and emotionally demanding this parenting gig would be. My friend Gavin described it like a baby bootcamp. He’s right. You get pushed to your limit, you’re completely exhausted, and then you’re screamed at (often literally) to give just a little bit more.
But as the ‘new parent fog’ begins to lift I’m beginning to appreciate the lessons I’ve learned and new insights I’ve gained. As well as the million and one practical parenting lessons, here are 10 larger life lessons that the last 50 days has revealed or reminded me of…
- There are no do-overs. Miss some tired signs and keep her up too long, think she’s tired when really she’s crying ’cause she’s starving, don’t burp her for long enough and she ends up covered in vomit… You never get to go back in time and make a different decision. You have to live with the outcome of the little decisions you make and all you can do is try to learn when things don’t go quite right. But at the same time, the ‘no do-overs’ also applies to the good stuff. I’ll never get a second chance to experience her ‘firsts’ so even when I’m wanting to fast-forward through the tough bits, I need to be present and to enjoy these moments as much as I can.
- The sun always rises. No matter how shitty your day or night, the sun will rise again tomorrow and provides a powerful psychological ‘wiping of the slate’.
- Progress is made by taking things ‘bird by bird’. This is a phrase I first heard (and loved) in the HBR post – A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed. Sometimes all you can do is keep putting one put in front of the other and focus on the one most pressing thing. After a while you can look back and see how far you’ve come.
- Get comfortable working with no ‘right’ answer. When I was at high school I got a C- for an art assignment. I decided that I disliked the subjectivity of art and the fact that I didn’t feel like I knew what I had to do to get a good grade, so I gravitated toward maths and sciences where there was a ‘right’ answer and I knew that if I gave the correct answer, I’d succeed. There is no black and white in parenting though. No manual. No book you can study from (well in fact there are several thousand – often completely inconsistent). No grading system to let you know if in fact you got it ‘right’. It’s a constant challenge to work with the ambiguity and the inconsistency of parenting a newborn, but it’s a good opportunity to learn to trust my instincts and to be comfortable working in the ‘grey’.
- Change is a prerequisite for growth. I was re-reading Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth recently and the first item – ‘Allow events to change you’ – stood out and made me realise that while becoming a parent is a huge change in my life, it also presents massive opportunity for growth. Things will never be the same – but why would I want them to be? For me to grow as a person, I need to keep changing. With Ella, I have injected a constant source of change into my life, and therefore endless opportunities to learn and grow.
- ‘Team’ well-being is #1. We like to think of our family as a team. We’re all in this together. While Jason and I were definitely a team before, we also could often function as two individuals. Ella has definitely changed that. Everyday it feels like we’re coming up against moments where we need to balance our own needs against each other’s. Thinking first and foremost of what the ‘team’ needs is a helpful way of reconciling our differing needs. Sometimes that means focusing on myself and asking for help so that I can better serve the team. Sometimes it means that I need to ‘suck up’ my own frustrations or make sacrifices in order to help Jason or Ella. Whatever helps to the team to function and to move forward.
- I can’t always make it okay. I often fall into the trap of taking on others’ stresses and upsets as my own. Ella is going to cry and scream. Jason will have moments of frustration and exhaustion too. And while I can do my best to respond to their needs, sometimes there’s going to be nothing I can do to fix it or to make it alright. All I can do is let them know that I’m there and I care. I can’t always take away pain or frustration. Our more important role as parents is not to remove the pain or frustrations from Ella’s life, but to help her learn how to manage them herself and to give her support when they occur.
- Choose to look for the good. Every day it would be possible for me to list a number of reasons why my life is tougher since having a baby or to focus on the things from my old life that I’ve lost or can’t do anymore. But it’s also possible to find just as many things that I love about being a mum and reasons why having Ella is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Some days it’s harder than others, but I can and I must choose to look for the good.
- Look at the world with fresh eyes. A couple of days ago I peeked at Ella in her bassinet and she was staring at the ceiling. It made me stop and look up to see what she was so fascinated by. I could see the patterns that the shadows made that had grabbed her attention – something that I had never noticed before. Every day when we go for a walk I try to describe to her what we’re seeing. Having to explain everything – from trees to sunlight to dogs to rain – makes me look more closely and with new wonder at the seemingly ordinary things around us. It made me smile to overhear Jason telling Ella about the smell of bacon as he made his breakfast the other day! It’s delightful to think about all the things she’s seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling for the first time – and to relish those firsts with her.
- We are loved. Major life events – both the stressful and celebratory (I guess having a baby fits into both) – really highlight that you’re part of a community. We’ve been so touched by how many people have made us dinners, given us gifts or sent us messages. I’ve also appreciated so much the love and support from a number of my girlfriends who’ve listened to me whinge, provided helpful advice, and reassured me that what we’re going through is normal and it does get better!