One of the greatest benefits of working so closely with new mothers is never really forgetting the “baby” stage. (Even though my own kids are school-aged.) Working with mothers of infants and toddlers helps me remember how challenging (and crazy and beautiful) the transition into motherhood can be. My own expectations for motherhood were so far off from the reality of what having a child actually ended up being like. And that trend has continued as my children grow older. Were your own expectations of motherhood met? And what has surprised you most about motherhood?
I was raised as a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I am no longer a member of the Church, but I was still practicing when I married and chose to start having children. My number one goal in life, starting as early as I can remember, was having a big family full of children, and being a SAHM. One of the biggest surprises about becoming a mother was how much I absolutely loathed the experience of being responsible for a baby 24/7. There, I said it.
The loss of independence was so unexpected and UNPLEASANT. I have a distinct recollection of not being able to let go of the fact that I’d never be able to pick up and leave to go to Target/the store/out to dinner ever again. The realization that giving birth meant a decision I could never take back really overwhelmed me. I truly didn’t realize what I’d gotten myself into. I could leave my marriage, I could leave my job, but I could never, ever leave this baby.
Motherhood is permanent…
My struggle to accept the permanency of motherhood was exacerbated by one thing… Lack of, and interrupted, sleep. Hands down, what surprised me most about having a baby is how poorly I functioned without the ability to be able to fall asleep when I wanted to. And to sleep all night without disruption. I usually fell asleep ok. But once I was awake for a feeding, I couldn’t fall back asleep because I knew the baby could wake at any moment. I would spend hours awake, exhausted, in the middle of the night. It was maddening and was the main culprit for my crippling post partum anxiety.
But, thank GOODNESS for sleep training. Sleep training benefitted my baby because she started sleeping 12 hours overnight without waking, and had consistent naps each day. It also greatly benefitted her because once her sleep was resolved, my overnight sleep started to improve. As I became healthier and happier from sleeping well at night, I was able to be a much more loving and patient mother.
As much as I struggled with transitioning into motherhood, I was WHOLLY unprepared for toddlerhood. I was unprepared for how long it lasted (18 months to 4 years!). And I was unprepared for how unprepared I was to parent and discipline a toddler. In retrospect, I was surprised by how challenging it was to manage the needs and behaviors of a growing child.
While infants grow rapidly, toddlers’ physical growth slows slightly while their cognitive development explodes. Your experience in raising toddlers can be a massive learning opportunity. Why? Because what triggers you about their behavior says a lot more about you and your outlook on life than it says anything about them. When my children were toddlers I made the enormous mistake of believing their behaviors said something about who they were as people. As opposed to actually saying something about their maturity level.
If I could go back and do it all over again, I would spend a lot of time trying to understand what and who toddlers are. And learning more about their brains. And worrying slightly less about trying to make them behave in the way I felt was “right.”
A word on sleep… It is surprising how much toddler sleep can be disrupted by their emotions. If your child knows how to fall asleep on their own (read: is sleep trained) be very careful not to start to help them fall asleep again. When a bad dream disrupts overnight sleep, remember that while comforting and checking in on your child is okay, assisting them to sleep will backfire very quickly. Toddlers can be sleep trained, but many parents find it more emotionally challenging (for them) than infant training. Thankfully, and surprisingly, it takes a lot less time to sleep train a toddler than an infant.
If you’re reading this, and in the thick of raising kids 5 years or younger, please know this… Raising kids get easier the older they get. SURPRISE! I don’t know what other people mean when they say, “It’s harder, but just in different ways.” It’s not harder to talk through a discipline issue with a child than it is to wonder why your baby is so unhappy and crabby so often. Certainly children’s issues can be bigger or scarier as they get older. But I would take raising school aged kids or older ANY DAY over having young kids.
I know there are lots of women who felt babies were easy, and older kids are hard. That’s real and that’s ok. (And it’s true, for them.) But if you are struggling with young babies and toddlers at home, I am nearly certain you’ll find the older stages much easier.
The other day I forgot something at the store I needed for dinner. My kids were home after summer camp. So you know what I did? I was able to pick up and go to the store. By myself. Because my kids are old enough to be home alone. I am genuinely surprised by the fact that I survived the early years. That I love my children deeply. That I like spending time with them. And that they are their own interesting and independent people. I’m surprised by their unique thoughts and opinions on life, and on what happens around them. I am surprised by how much they still care about what I think about them, and how much influence I have. I’m surprised that all my anguish, and agony, and investment was worth it.
One Last Surprise…
Sleep still matters. It matters just as much for my middle schooler now as it did when she was a baby. Lack of sleep in school aged children is perhaps a bigger epidemic than it is for kids 5 years and younger. With the increase in freedom and responsibility, it is vital you mandate your children have excellent sleep habits while they live in your home. Regardless of age.
Mandate lights out times, lock down phones (thank you, Apple, for Screen Time). Insist on white noise and darkness. Enforce these rules while your children live in your home and do not deviate. Lack of sleep in kids and teens contributes to risky sexual behavior, increased drug use, poorer grades, and higher risk of car accidents. And hear me when I tell you… *You* as a parent need to be the one who remains vigilant in making sure your child gets enough sleep throughout their school years.
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