Stop Telling New Parents That “It Gets Better.”
My son turned two this weekend. It was a tough weekend with not too much of a birthday celebration. He had a fever and was sick again, hardly slept, and had endless temper tantrums. I kept feeling that I still had no idea what I was doing, despite the fact that my “baby” was now two, and I wondered, when do I stop feeling like a new parent?
When he was first born — a tiny, fragile, pink, and almost unearthly creature — toddlerhood seemed ages in the future. Two year olds were huge, independent giants, who walked, talked, expressed opinions (loudly) about food and toys, and sometimes even slept in big kid beds. Nothing like this helpless infant.
I expected the first few months of parenthood to be difficult. Doesn’t everyone? Of course, it was different than I had expected — harder in some ways, easier in others. It turns out that I worried about a lot of things that didn’t make any difference once a baby came into your life. (Wipes warmers, anyone? Did it really make any difference what type of sheets were on my son’s bassinet?)
Those weeks when day and night all blurred together. The endless spitups and poop. The hours of bouncing and rocking and singing. Toward the end of this “newborn” period, we moved to a new city. There were so many big changes in my life during a short period of time. I felt like I was almost in a state of shock, like I woke up one day and someone switched my old life without my permission.
I must have had at least a few dozen people tell me, “It gets better.” And they gave me very specific timelines. At first, many people said that “it got better” after the first three months, this exact time when colic would be over. Then it was six months. Then people told me that the first year was the toughest. Others said the first two years were hardest. (There’s a great post right now at the Huffington Post by a dad — Adrian Kulp of Dad Or Alive — who had been told that two year olds were difficult, but learned that three years olds are actually even harder.)
You know what? We need to stop holding out false promises to new parents. Why don’t we just say that all parenthood is hard and that it doesn’t get that much easier? Parenthood is the most exhausting but rewarding aspect of most people’s lives. I’ve come to the conclusion that each developmental period will be challenging and wonderful in its own way.
I think that by constantly telling new parents that at some magical moment in the future parenthood will be easier…it’s just setting them up for disappointment. At the back of my mind I’ve been waiting for that momentous time when I felt like I knew exactly what I was doing. I’ve come to the realization that it’s not going to happen. I will continue to vacillate between joy, loneliness, incompetence, boredom, gratitude, impatience, and love.
And I also think that we should be talking a lot more about how to support early parenthood, not just the first months, but also beyond that initial fog.
To that end, stay tuned for a new project. As many of you know, Stephanie Sprenger of Mommy, For Real and I have been collecting women’s stories of friendship for HerStories: Tales of Female Friendship. On Wednesday, we’ll be making an exciting announcement about a HerStories project that we’ll be developing together about new motherhood. We have some really big news coming up in the next few days!
In the meantime, read Stephanie’s HerStories essay today about a remarkable connection between two mothers.
And I’d love to hear your thoughts: When did “new parenthood” get easier for you?
Janine Huldie says
You said it truly perfectly, because after two kids and almost 4 years I still feel lost and helpless at times. Yes parenting can be rewarding, but can’t help, but also agree that it is also so very challenging, too.
Deb @ Urban Moo Cow says
It doesn’t “get easier” because as soon as you’ve maybe figured out one phase, the phase has passed and a new set of problems present themselves.
Perhaps the best thing to do is just lean back and let it all wash over you….
That’s exactly it! Just when you’ve figured out one phase, they go and change on you completely, and all of your wisdom means nothing!
Mary Kathryn says
Over the years, when I’d talk to parents older than I was, many would say parenting is always difficult, just difficult in different ways. One wise mom told me that children are physically draining when they’re young, and emotionally draining when they’re teens and older. It is harder as you lose more control over their lives. I think when they leave home, become adults, and then give you grandkids, you can transfer your anxieties to the next generation. But the effects of parenting (I think) have more to do with the parents than the children. I try to let go and not hold things too tightly, not take things too personally, and remind myself that although I love them, I am my own individual. My goal is to get them grown into adults, and when I’ve done that, I need to accept it as done. This helps. We cannot expect our difficult infant/toddler/child/teen to be different than what they are. We can only change ourselves and our attitudes toward the challenges.
I’ve talked to some parents of teenagers recently, and they definitely confirm this experience. The type of separation that teens are going through is so normal, but must be so difficult. And it’s true though for every phase of parenting: there’s only so much that you can “control” about your kid’s childhood. They’re born with temperaments, their own genetic code, and ways of experiencing the world. Great comment!
I agree that things don’t really get easier, they just change. As the mother of a 2.5 year old, it isn’t that things got easier over time, it’s that I am able to deal with the changes better. There were so many “shoulds” flying through my mind in the first months and year and over time I’ve gotten better at tuning them out, listening to my daughter and building confidence in my own abilities to handle the changes.
That is also true! I barely take out the parenting or baby books anymore. You get to know your kid’s own needs and personalities, and you build more confidence in your ability to know what is best. But it’s still hard!
Surprise Mama says
So so so true. I have heard myself say those same words to myself and others. I think that we always assume that because exposure to experience makes us more able to able to handle them, but parenting is so totally different than anything else and things are constantly getting better AND worse…
Thanks for the great post and I look forward to your announcement later this week.
That’s exactly it. I like that way of putting it: things get better AND worse at the same time! It’s so confusing!
Stephanie @ Mommy, for real. says
This was the perfect post for today! Sorry to hear about your weekend, and I think your post articulated a huge parenting truth. As some things get “better”, we are immediately presented with a whole new set of stressors and challenges. I’m not sure there will ever come a point when we sit down and put our feet up and breathe a sigh of relief. One phrase I find myself repeating over and over (in my own head of course) is: “I breathed a premature sigh of relief.” Just when I think I have something down, it changes, and not always for the better. I agree that it is extremely important for us, as a community of parents, to be more honest about the realities of parenthood.
The Dose of Reality says
Preach it!! There is not a less helpful thing to say to a parent than that. The truth is, every stage brings its own set of challenges. The only “easy” stage is the stage you are finished with and look at in hindsight. As parents we never get to cross the finish line and raise our hands in triumph because we’re done. It just doesn’t work that way. –The Dose Girls
Such a great post, Jessica.
I’ll remember this when I become a mom. I can just imagine how my mom, while raising us, had to deal with a teenager, an 8 year old, and a newborn. I’m sure none of us were any easier than the others at that time. 🙂
Melissa@Home on Deranged says
I think you summed it up perfectly. I think sometimes we tell others “it gets easier” because that’s what we want to believe. You know, the memory making everything a little easier to bear for all of us. And I’m so glad you had boredom in that list. I used to beat myself up for sometimes feeling bored when I should be thrilled to be raising such beautiful girls.
p.s. really looking forward to your big announcement with Stephanie 🙂
Thank you, Melissa! And I’m sure that there’s not one single parent who doesn’t get a bit bored sometimes in changing diapers, reading the same books over and over, and stacking the same blocks. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t love being a parent other times!
I’m going to be the voice of dissent here, because just this weekend I was telling a mother of a 4 month old and 2 1/2 year old that it will get better. She is exhausted, has no sleep, and is trying to figure out how to balance two lives.
Her friends describe her as “in the weeds” and I thought that was an excellent description.
My kids are 4 and 6. For the last year and a half, I have not spent every day feeling like a failure, or wondering how I’ll survive until bedtime (theirs or mine), or been bored out of my mind for lack of time to think. It came on gradually, when I realized I was able to hold a thought in my head for longer than 2 minutes. Then, when I was able to take out the trash and walk around the block without securing the younger one behind some fence. Then, when my husband and I had a whole conversation while the kids played alone in the other room. Now I have reached the point I can actually take a nap for an hour if I really need it, even if they’re home and awake.
This is not to say there are weeks from hell, especially when one (or both) is sick, or having a bad tantrum-y kind of day. But on the whole, these are minor crises in longer spans of contentment. I know this will change (I’ve taught junior high.) But for now, it *is* better.
During the mindless, desperate, sleep-deprived slog of the first five years (before my youngest was three), I actually found the “it’s hard in a different way” advice to be terrifying. I already hated parenting and thought I was bad at it. What do you mean it always stays this hard?
Or maybe my bar was set very, very low, and all I need from parenting is seven hours of sleep and for my kids to play nicely together. 🙂
Oh, this is a great idea for another post! I’ve heard from people — and maybe there’s good research about this — that there’s a period in which it really is “better” when your kids are in elementary school. Somewhere around the ages of 4/5 to early adolescence? (Then I’m sure all bets are off again.) I think one of the biggest factors here is sleep, as you say. Everything — tantrums, baby illness, whatever — seems more bearable if you’re getting enough rest. And then when they’re teenagers, I guess you go through another period of getting no rest, for very different reasons!
I do think Jessica, our host, and possibly some of the posters here, can’t see it getting better because they haven’t yet reached “the sweet spot” age. I am also fortunate to have two kids who play very well together, but if my extrovert daughter is home alone it’s “Mommy mommy mommy pay attention to me” all day long. So if you have an only child, this may not always be the case, and if you’re an introvert (like me) it might drive you more insane.
I would like to amend my previous post, since I’ve now entered some weird phase where my son is wetting his pants again, and he and my daughter were fighting over him clinging to her at camp, and then when we switched camps we got an uncharacteristic phone call that he was in trouble…
Yes, the challenges are different. No, it’s not smooth sailing. I am befuddled anew. On the other hand, these are “blips” rather than months-long trends. I don’t know how to fix some of these things, but I also don’t necessarily run for the parenting manuals either. I’m trusting my instincts more, and that helps.
Haha…I laughed when I read this, because I say that exact phrase! But, I mean it. For me, after three months my baby stopped crying 25/7, and I adjusted a bit, so–emotionally, it did get better for me. And when my son started sleeping through the night, close to almost a year old, everything felt better in life, instead of walking around in a sleep-deprived stupor.
But, I agree, there are new crappy challenges, and new amazing/fun milestones at every age. (I LOVED it when my son started crawling and walking. He became so much more independent and happy, instead of pulling on my pant leg, crying to be picked up all day!)
I find that parenthood always brings new surprises, some welcomed…others not so much. But I have found parenting to become more rewarding as my child ages and we can relate more. I like it better than when she was an infant.
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Nicole Nenninger says
I think all phases of parenthood can be challenging. As the mother to 4 teens, it helps to keep a positive attitude, to read up on conscious (authoritative) parenting, and to have a good support system with your husband and ex. It helps if your ex is on the same page as you–I find this to be the most stressful in my life right now. The divorce dynamic sets up some parents to, in the children’s eyes, have one parent as the “good guy” (i.e. no limits, structure; candy store/disneyland atmosphere) and the other as the “bad guy” (limits, structure, repercussions; trying to deal with the spoiled and entitled behavior). I suppose this happens in intact homes as well, however, if you have an ex who is willing to say to a child “Oh, is your mom too strict? You can come live here if you want,” without talking it over with the other parent…it’s heartbreaking. The child has more power than the parent then and it completely disrupts normal childhood development. Not to mention they miss out on the other parent and their side of the family. Kids need repercussions to their negative behaviors. Some exes feel a need to rescue them (for reasons I won’t get into here). This is so damaging to kids.
Happy SITS day!! I love this post!!! You’re dead on!
Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha says
Oh yes yes yes. I know I say “it gets easier” a lot, because in some ways I really feel like it HAS gotten easier. I liked Nothing By The Book’s post about this, saying something to the effect of … that it’s not so much that we go back to our earlier lives, but that we grow into and get used to our new lives. Now that my kids are 6 and 4, some parts are WAY easier… they can play together while I make dinner instead of me trying to navigate the kitchen with littles underfoot. And other challenges come along, but as we learn more about our children’s personalities, their previous struggles, we are that much better prepared to face the new challenges, compared to when they were infants and basically “strangers” to us. I love these kind of posts and discussions about motherhood ~ thanks for sharing this one, too!!
Seana Turner says
My oldest didn’t sleep through the night until she was 3 years old. Actually, it was less of a solid sleep and more of a “I can wake up and read in my bed without waking Mom” situation. She still struggles with insomnia. It was, and still is, hard.
I agree with a lot of the other moms here…It never gets easier, just different. As a mom of a 20 yo, 15 yo, and 4 yo…it’s still tough but very different.
From my experience, the hardest part is letting them learn to drive! No control, you have to completely let go in the midst of what could be a deadly experience.
Enjoy the good times and know you’ll get through the tough times (whatever and whenever they happen).
Lynne Childress says
I think that it gets better, than it gets hard again. And that cycle continues. And it’s okay.
Sheila Skillingstead says
Thanks for the truth about parenting. I was more tired in my thirties than I ever was in my twenties and then all three girls become teenagers at the same time. We all survived. Enjoy your SITS Day.
My girls are now 17 and 23, and I would have to say when they pass the age of 16, life gets easier, but I have to admit that I do miss those baby days and I miss buying Barbie dolls and baby dolls…I guess I’ll have to wait for grandkids, so I can buy toys again.
Happy SITS Day!
Miranda Pridgeon says
I am not a parent yet, but I would appreciate people being honest with me. Parenthood is different for everyone. Each baby is different and it seems to be the challenges of being a parent goes on for a long time. However, I will try to accept the challenges with open arms and try my best to stay sane through it all. Great post! Visiting from SITS.
Agree wholeheartedly. Not only is every stage of life both wonderful & difficult, just in different ways, it also varies based on the individuals involved as well. Someone with a colicky infant might find the 2 yr old phase to be “easier”, while someone whose toddler has behavioral development issues might dream wistfully back to the infant days. It’s all just… different.
My daughter just turned 3. Still waiting for “it” to get better. The struggles and concerns from infancy may be different in the era of toddler-dom, but they are still struggles and concerns nonetheless. Happy SITS Day.
Coleen @ The Redhead Baker says
You pretty much nailed it. My son is 19 months old now, and I love him dearly, but looking back on his early months, THOSE were the “easy” days! Now I have to stay on top of him, making sure he doesn’t hurt himself, figure out what he wants to eat before he melts down, etc.
Norine of Science of Parenthood says
A few years ago a friend gave me a fridge magnet that says, “The first 40 years of parenthood are always the hardest.” So true! Great post as always!!
Rabia @ TheLiebers says
Exactly! I think some things have gotten easier or more routine, but then new challenges come along to take the place of the ones we just conquered. And I’m pretty sure if I asked my mom (whose children are 44, 35 and 34) she would still say that parenting is difficult. Now she watches her kids struggle with life and parenting and wants to be able to make it easy and she knows she can’t.
Jean Lynd says
I have 4 kids, ages 19-5…in some ways (like having to do every SINGLE THING for them, getting NO sleep), it does get better. But in many ways (they go from worshipping you to detesting you in the older years), it does get worse. Nobody would do it if everyone told us how it REALLY is! Happy SITS day, late.
My daughter is only 16 months but I do feel it became easier when she started sleeping through the night at 12 months. There are still (and always will be) challenges but they are easier to face when well rested. I don’t think parenting will ever be ‘easy’ but it does get better. And while I haven’t experienced it myself yet, I do expect that it will be a cyclical process of better and worse just like with any relationship.
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