Perhaps the most common question a parent gets asked is “What advice would you give to a couple expecting their first child?” It’s impossible to answer definitively: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ would cover a lot of ground, but not all of it. ‘Don’t be intimidated by opinionated commentators offering unwanted advice?’ Sure that’s important, but it barely scratches the surface. ‘Toilet training means life gets messier, not cleaner, and for longer than you think?’ Or what about ‘Resist the instinct to throw your hands up to catch a projectile vomit. It is much easier to clean the wall than it is your hands/hair/face/clothes.’ (You could also substitute this rule for poo. Yes it does happen).
Personally I think advice to new parents is unnecessary because absolutely everything about raising children takes us by surprise from the minute they are born. We are instantly overwhelmed with feelings of love and vulnerability, and even more surprised to learn that these feelings grow daily. I loved my children completely when they were born, so how is it I can love them more and more each day?
As for the details, we learn on the job daily. It’s kind of like running an office with one or more tantrum wielding crazy people who think they are actually your boss and not the other way around. Only they keep changing the rules, so it’s kind of like managing an office with one or more tantrum wielding crazy people who continually poke you with a sharp stick to keep you on your toes. You learn to think on your feet and figure it out as you go, because that’s kind of what parenting is.
The most surprising thing about being a parent for me has been the constant ache of maintaining the delicate balance between a deep fear that something will go wrong interspersed with moments of blissful pride. It’s a strange marriage I wasn’t prepared for, but I’m learning.
I’ve been doing this parenting caper for nearly five years and I think I’ve just settled nicely. Very few bodily fluids can gross me out anymore and I’ve learned how to yell less. I’ve got the multitasking thing under control, (you know, that thing where you imitate an octopus while cleaning/cooking/wiping body parts/sending work emails/preventing life threatening accidents from children who wish to prove gravitational theory as incorrect.) I’ve got it covered, at least until the teen years, (though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a preview of that with some of my threenager’s recent tantrums).
And that brings us to yesterday.
Yesterday came the day I didn’t realise I was dreading. Because I was never going to be one of those mums who tearfully dabbed a tissue to her eye at the school gate on the first day of kindy. I know they have to grow up, (that’s kind of the point), and I’m fine with it.
Except that I realised, a part of me is not. Because yesterday was the day I took my first born to get his school uniform. And looking at him in his button up shirt and long socks, the sound of kids playing outside and the nearby hopscotch markings it all became crystal clear.
What we are doing as parents from the moment our children are born is preparing them not to need us anymore. Teaching them to eat, sleep and play by themselves. From tying their shoelaces to counting out pocket money – It’s our sole and very primal purpose from the day we first take them into our arms. And there he was, five years later, beaming with pride in a floppy school hat and I realised what being his mother really means.
It means I get a little while to teach him, a little while to enjoy watching his personality become evident, a little while to marvel at his wins and secretly despair at his losses, (while comforting him with total confidence). It means that gradually he will need me less and less and that that is in fact an achievement. It means a finite number of hand holds, bedtime cuddles, and scraped knees to plaster. And while I am evaluating which schools he will go to, which extra curricular activities he’ll do, what foods will get the best out of him; the moments are ticking away and he is growing up.
So five years in and I am still being fooled by this gig. I have no idea what is around the corner, but I’m sure whatever it is I’m in for a surprise. I can’t really offer advice when I don’t know what to expect myself. And I’m not just talking about projectile body fluids. Because life, especially when it is someone else’s in the making, is totally unpredictable.
And really, the question itself is flawed. This question only gets asked because we are so caught up in ‘getting it right’ and so concerned about tiny details resulting in catastrophy. Perhaps the best strategy, (and it pains me to say this because I am a total planner), is to jump in with both feet; to get your hands dirty without heeding anyone’s instruction.
If I’m pressed, perhaps the most useful advice I could offer of our parenting rollercoaster five years in is simply to not ask for advice. Instead trust your instincts, because they are inevitably more accurate than other people’s opinions. Well-meaning relatives, strangers offering opinions and parenting ‘experts’ tend to weigh in on every aspect of parenting, leaving many of us feeling micro managed and most of us to second guess ourselves. Don’t second guess yourself. In reality, you are the expert when it comes to your child. If he has a fever, take him to a doctor. If she has a toothache, take her to the dentist. On most other issues, within reason, you will know what is best, or at least how to find out what’s best. The world is full of experts – don’t forget you are one of them.
And one other thing – and I know this is a cliché – enjoy it. Every single fleeting moment. Because they float by while you are worrying, planning, preparing and even sleeping. There will be a lot of firsts and a lot of lasts to savour, so breathe it in while it lasts.