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What No One Tells You About Parenting

I have some bad news. That life you’ve grown accustomed to? It’s long, far away, never to be seen again, gone. May it rest in peace. (Which is ironic, because you will not be resting in peace, or any other state, for quite some time.)

All the things that you’ve taken for granted will be things of the past. Sleep, freedom, spare time and ... well, those are the big three that cover pretty much all the good things in life. Fortunately, those wonderful things will be replaced by baby giggles and smiles (and baby farts, which for some reason, are endlessly entertaining), so at least some bright spots remain on your horizon.

My biggest adjustment, by far, was the change in my sleeping schedule. At the beginning this change meant going from sleeping as long as I wanted, at whatever time I wanted, to not sleeping more than two hours at a time. Even now, with the baby sleeping through the night, I haven’t quite gotten used to going to bed early and getting up early, because it’s just not what my body has been doing for the past decade or so. And it’s not going down without a fight.

When you add the change in sleep schedule to the general tiring nature of awake children, you end up with a constant feeling of exhaustion. A feeling that I imagine will be present for the next couple of decades. You might want to invest in some of that miracle cream that eliminates dark circles under your eyes. Or just start saving for some major plastic surgery: “A hundred dollars for the kid’s college fund, a hundred dollars for mommy’s face reconstruction fund.” I’m sure it will be tax deductible, as soon as there is a woman president.

The loss of freedom will also take you by surprise, even if you thought you were prepared for it. For a few years before I had a child, I made a very big effort to maximize my freedom, knowing that it was going to take a hit when a baby came along. I traveled all over the place, ate out at restaurants several times a week, and basically did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted—even if most of the time all I really wanted to do was watch an entire TV season on Netflix in one day. I was crazy adventurous like that. I was in that rare sweet spot where I had the finances and freedom to support my wandering. And I had a countdown clock pushing me to have as much fun and relaxation as possible before it ran out.

Then it ran out.

Even though I had spent years “preparing” for my loss of freedom, it turns out all I was really doing was setting myself up for the loss to be an even bigger hit to my lifestyle. Things went upside down overnight. I remember standing outside a Toys “R” Us one morning with a group of other moms, all of us holding our children and waiting for the store to open. I had already been up for so many hours and yet this store still wasn’t open. How was this possible? When in the history of me had I ever had the occasion to be anywhere early enough to be the first one there? And how sad were all of us moms standing outside tapping on the window, begging them to open so we could buy our diapers and cheap toys?

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Things were equally as depressing in the nighttime hours. I remember when we were thinking of moving to the suburbs for a bigger house and a safer neighborhood, and a (childless) friend of mine just shook her head. “You know, it’s nice out there, but there is absolutely no nightlife.”

That was by far the funniest thing I had heard in all my days: the thought that (1) I would be making any choice about anything based on nightlife and (2) I still had a nightlife that didn’t include a night light.

One night my partner Becky decided she wanted to expand our horizons and invite some people over for dinner. “Let’s have them over on Friday! It’ll be great. We’ll cook and eat and—”

“They will not be available on Friday.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Wednesday today and they don’t have children. They have lives. Lives that have been planned for a couple weeks.”

She began to send them a text message, perhaps suffering from amnesia about what her life used to be like. “They will be able to—oh, never mind, they wrote back. They weren’t free this Friday or any Friday for the next month.”

Somehow, in the midst of all this not sleeping or having fun, your life will take yet another hit. Suddenly, for no comprehensible reason, your days will shrink down and feel entirely too short to get anything done at all. Where you used to be able to kick the crap out of a to-do list, you will now make it only halfway down the list before bedtime. This will be absolutely baffling. If anything, your days have gotten longer, with that whole lack of sleep thing, but somehow your productivity has come to a standstill. And even more troubling than that, your free time has become nonexistent.

You used to unwind after completing your to-do list by watching a little TV or reading magazines and even entire novels. Sometimes really big novels. Now you are lucky to catch a glimpse of Facebook while breast-feeding the baby before you both pass out.

Before my daughter Vivian came along I was crazy productive. I had a career and hobbies and attended social events. And I slept 12 hours a night. In my remaining 12 hours a day I could jam out all sorts of projects, lunch dates, soccer games, writing sessions and even the occasional day spent movie-hopping at the theater. And I still slept 12 hours a day. That’s some time-management prowess right there.

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These days, I can’t even remember the last time I went to a movie, I’m too tired to play soccer and going on a lunch date messes up an entire day of work. At the end of most days I feel like I’ve added more things to my to-do list than I’ve subtracted. My kid is a year-and-a-half, and in those 18 months I’ve yet to have a day where I’ve said to myself, “All caught up!!” There’s always more stuff to be done, and never quite enough time.

But as my daughter gets older, images of my old life fade away and this new life comes more and more into focus. My days haven’t gotten shorter, per se; they have just been filled with a new little person. And her little giggles, laughs, and farts. Instead of watching TV and reading novels, I now spend my time singing the alphabet and playing with stickers. (So. Many. Stickers.) At least once a day, and usually more, my kid will do something that nearly makes my heart explode because it reminds me how much I love her. She gives standing ovations for the most mundane accomplishments, and gently puts her head against the cat to give it hugs. She passes out kisses with abandon.

In the beginning, when your old life is still only a few weeks or months in the rearview mirror, everything can seem so overwhelmingly different. And it all happens so quickly. I can’t tell you that it gets so much easier and you’ll be back enjoying the nightlife again in no time, because that is probably not going to happen. But I can tell you that your new nightlife, with bath time and story time and bedtime, will eventually feel pretty nice, too (mostly because it ends with the child sleeping).

Even though you are probably exhausted at the end of that nighttime routine, try to force yourself to unwind once your little one is down, even if it’s just for a half hour or so. Turn on the TV, take six months to read that new novel, talk to your spouse about something other than your child’s bowel movements. You know, get back to the glamorous parts of life.

I asked some of my MOFLs (aka Moms on the Front Lines) what they miss most about their lives pre-baby and the things they love most about their new lives. So much sweetness ensued.

Sarah says, “I miss SLEEP!!!!!! Also, my freedom and time alone. I love rocking Drew to sleep every night and all the crazy, funny stuff he says. And Owen’s first smiles and giggles.”

Michelle is not a fan of the mess. “I miss my house actually staying clean for more than five minutes after I clean it. The thing I love the most is when Enzo says, ‘I wuv you mommy!’ without me saying it first.”

Jenine could go for a little quiet. “I love and hate all the talking from my 4-year-old. He is hilarious!! But then, he also never shuts up. I almost never listen to music or watch TV when he’s not around anymore because I am relishing the silence!! My two kids just started playing together a little and I cannot get enough of it! They crack each other up and it makes me feel all warm and smooshy inside. Yeah, freedom would be nice. Like the freedom to use the bathroom or take a shower without planning it out.”

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Carrie misses the gym, but it’s more than just the sweating she longs for. “I, too, miss the gym, or what it represents. Time alone, time without a stopwatch ticking. Especially after the second baby, it’s 10 times harder. However, I love their laughs and smiles. Now with the talking and questions, it’s so fun to see their little minds working. Also, I love the early-morning cuddles. I wouldn’t miss those for the world!”

So you see, even though your life is in fact over, it is being replaced with something new. New adventures, new fun, and new ways to deal with sleep deprivation. Somewhere on the horizon, just past diaper rashes and sleepless nights, lies a moment when the love of your life will walk up for no reason and say, “I love you, Mama.” Then, all of a sudden, sleep and freedom will seem very, very small in comparison. If you’re lucky, they’ll even throw in a baby fart to keep the mood light.

Excerpted from The Sh!t No One Tells You: A Guide to Surviving Your Baby's First Year by Dawn Dais; Seal Press; June 2013

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