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The One Thing I Wish I'd Known in My First Year of Parenthood

High angle view of mother kissing baby in bed
Photograph by Getty Images/Blend Images

“Why don’t you just bring him to bed?” my husband asked.

Our son was only a week old, but apparently he was old enough to know he loathed the bassinet I’d placed next to my side of the bed. I’d swaddled him, nursed him and placed his tiny sleeping body into the bassinet, only to have him startle awake and shrieking a few minutes later. I’d never been more tired in my life.

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“No, I’m afraid I’ll smother him,” I whined. I also worried that if I brought our newborn into bed with us, he’d be there for the next 18 years. The decision of whether or not to let our son co-sleep literally felt like a life or death one—I’d heard horror stories of babies being suffocated by their parents.

But I was so tired.

I slid my little boy into the bed next to me. The sinking feeling in my chest dripped away as I fell asleep.

The early months of parenting was like living in a multiple choice quiz, but we wouldn’t find out our grades for another few decades.

Early parenting has a steep learning curve. After years of being responsible for only myself, suddenly being in charge of keeping a tiny human alive, fed and reasonably clean was a shock to my system.

And one of the hardest parts was all the choices new parenthood brings.

Will your baby sleep with you? Or in a crib in another room? Will you breastfeed on demand or attempt to put your baby on a schedule? When your baby’s teething, will you try an amber teething necklace or go straight for the Tylenol? Will you sleep train, and if so, which method will you use?

On any given day in the early months of parenting, it felt like my husband and I were charged with making dozens of decisions. It was like living in a multiple choice quiz, but we wouldn’t find out our grades for another few decades.

The current parenting climate, saturated with news and research about how our kids will turn out if we sleep train or don't, if we work or stay home, and if we helicopter parent or go free-range, combined with the naturally high stakes of parenting, was overwhelming.

But we fumbled along, getting to know our son a little better each day, hoping that the choices we were making weren’t going to ruin his life.

What I wish I’d known in that first amazing and supremely challenging year is that the decisions we made wouldn’t have lifelong consequences.

Babies change rapidly, constantly turning into new versions of themselves. When they’re born, they’re already, to some degree, who they are. As parents we have enormous influence over them. But those choices I made in my son’s first year of life? The ones that seemed monumental, or even life or death? They were largely inconsequential. The little boy I reluctantly slipped into bed with me that night? He stayed there for the next year and a half. But he’s 7 now, and he sleeps like a champion—in his own bed.

The choices I was making were as small as my boy, and reversible.

Maybe it’s just human nature to look back with the sweet gift of hindsight and see that for most of us, the big decisions we sweat over usually turn out OK. Enormous decisions I faced in the past, like when to leave a job, whether to move back to the East Coast, and even whether or not to have children—those choices have all panned out quite nicely, and I have no regrets.

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But there is something about making choices on the behalf of another human being—a human being that I love so wildly—that has me feeling the full weight of parenting. Will I make the right choices, given my life experience, personality and knowledge, for this other human being who is separate from me, who will have his own life experiences, personality and knowledge?

If I could relive that first year of parenting, I’d worry less about how each choice I made might affect my son’s future. I’d settle into the role of his proxy, trusting that I was doing my best based on what I knew at any given moment. I’d get cozy knowing that this was just the warm-up period of parenting, and barring anything truly tragic like an illness or accident, the choices I was making were as small as my boy, and reversible.

I’d say, don’t worry so much, Mama. You’re doing just fine.

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