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The Real Reason Why Being a First-Time Parent Is So Hard

Photograph by Twenty20

My husband nudged me and gestured at the sweet couple doting on their baby in the hardware store checkout line. The infant, dressed impeccably in a clean pink sleeper and delicate hair bow, was kicking her feet in her stroller and fussing mildly. Both of her parents pounced into action immediately, bending over to adjust the stroller straps, offer a pacifier, making comforting shushing sounds and moving the stroller wheels back and forth in place to soothe her.

“It’s so easy,” my husband whispered to me, smiling, “when you just have one. You can tag team.”

“Yeah, except it isn’t really that easy,” I said. “Because you have no idea what you’re doing.”

I didn’t mean it as an insult. I’ve been in the position of knowing next to nothing about raising kids myself. Seven years ago, when my first son was born, I brought him home from the hospital and wondered what in the world I was supposed to do about any number of parenting decisions and dilemmas.

Now, as a mother of three sons, I’m not an expert but definitely no longer a rookie. With all the noise, mess, chaos and sleeplessness that has accompanied parenthood so far, something else has come along I never expected: confidence.

At this point, I actually know some stuff about raising kids and it makes this whole gig just a little bit simpler.

Make no mistake, I don’t have the answers to parenting’s greatest questions and I’m not sitting on any secrets about bringing up well-adjusted kids. I can’t tell you how to make your child sleep through the night or ask for extra carrots at dinner or unglue their eyes from any kind of screen without complaint. I wish I could tell you how to raise kids who listen the first time you ask them to pick up their shoes and who never fight with their siblings over the last chocolate chip cookie.

But I have learned some basic truths about parenting that make my life easier.

I know that sometimes babies cry for no reason. It’s not your fault and there’s not much you can do about it.

I know that 2-year-olds are crazy but they are absolute angels compared to 3-year-olds.

I know that a snack baggie full of Goldfish or Cheerios is your ticket to surviving public outings with anyone under the age of 4.

I know that big kids think they know everything and you start becoming uncool to them way before you are ready.

I know that if you’re just showing up every day and doing the best you can, your kids are going to turn out halfway decent—at minimum.

This knowledge was only gained through sheer, hard-won experience. That’s something that first-time parents don’t have, simply because they’re totally new to the monumental responsibility of raising kids.

I no longer think that all the day-to-day choices I make about how to parent are really that important.

I will admit that I sometimes look at new parents out in public—while I’m wrangling my three boys into submission at the park or grocery store—and think, “Wow, I remember those days. Must be nice to just have one kid to worry about.”

Then I remember it really isn’t. Because those parents haven’t yet gained the confidence that comes with experience, and that is a really beautiful thing. That confidence is what allows me to know that I will not, in fact, die of sleep deprivation no matter how tired I am. That confidence is what allows me to know when to call the family pediatrician for an appointment and when to just ride out that fever or hacking cough because there's nothing anybody can do about it except wait.

That confidence is what allows me to shrug off hot topic debates about breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding or working moms vs. stay-at-home moms or organic, non-GMO food vs. McDonald’s. I’ve seen some things work and some things fail, often without much rhyme or reason.

I no longer think that all the day-to-day choices I make about how to parent are really that important. A small number of them are, but most really aren’t. I choose to love my kids and I try not to place much emphasis on anything else. There is profound comfort to be found in that.

I remember being a new mother: scared and sad and joyful and excited and exhausted, not to mention confused about how I could possess all those conflicting emotions at the same time. More than anything, I remember feeling overwhelmed by all the things I didn’t know. All the choices I made and all the ones I didn’t.

I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s tempting to wish I could go back in time and redo my experience having one child. It would be so much easier, I think. The car seats, the feedings, the public outings, the milestones. The questions and worries. The hope-for-the-best leaps of faith that keep you up at night.

It would all be easier, but only if I could take every bit of my hard-earned knowledge with me. If I couldn’t, I would be just like those new parents in the hardware store, fretting over how to soothe their crying baby. I would be in possession of a whole world’s worth of love, but little experience or confidence in how to manage it.

I wouldn’t trade my position. I wouldn’t go back. It wasn’t as easy as it looks now—but it does get easier as you go. And that's something to hold on to.

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