Part 4, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.
Social Convention 4: remember that parenting is really, really, really hard, regardless of the number of parents/children or the path to parenthood and be more forgiving of ourselves and more helpful to others.
What happens in the absence of this convention: expectations, both externally and internally imposed, become insane. This one is tricky. There certainly are others judging our decision to parent and waiting to see whether we’ve really thought it through. But usually, we’re the ones self-imposing the unreasonable expectations we imagine others have of us to keep it all together and be over the moon all the time about parenthood. So although I think there genuinely is a problem with people having unreasonable expectations about how parents will feel about parenthood and handle the complications it presents, those of us who are parents are a big part of the problem. We are often the ones forgetting how hard what we are doing is and expecting ourselves not to show “weakness”. So here’s the real deal with me, and I strongly suspect it’s the unspoken real deal with a lot of people: seeing my son born was the most incredible moment of my life, and I was shocked by how much love I felt in that instant. But when the nurse handed him to me, my first thought was something like “WAIT! What do you mean I’m responsible for him now?! That seems like a terrible idea.” Everyone knows that parenting is hard. But experiencing it is…well, the knowledge that it’s hard just doesn’t come close to capturing the experience of it. I was exhausted, frazzled, on edge. But what people kept asking was, “Are you over the moon?” The answer is complicated: yes, I am. I am happier than I have ever been. I am also now existing in the depths of the underworld. In 11 days, I went from just a person with an adult home and lots of time to sleep to being a very tired mother of an infant with a house full of baby junk. I am feeling ALL OF THE THINGS. But I felt like I should answer “Yes, I am sooooooo happy!” Nevermind that my day now revolves around someone else’s bodily functions, and I have reached the point of exhaustion where I am physically ill. Let’s just leave it at “Yes, I’m soooooo happy!” I suspect all parents feel this way. We internalize the expectation that we will exist in a constant state of gratitude, bliss, and togetherness. Sure, that’s a lofty goal, but it sets us up for certain failure. As a single parent via adoption, I feel this pressure three times over. I feel somehow less free to complain about financial stress or work-life balance because people will be thinking, “Well, you chose to be a single mom!” or “Well, you wanted this!” Although people have in fact said exactly those things to me, both that reaction and my fear of it are irrational. The reaction itself assumes that my choice to become a parent was somehow more deliberate than anyone else’s. The process may have involved more (and far less pleasant) steps, but the decision itself was exactly the same. It further assumes that a second parent would help, and that’s not obviously true. (In fact, I think flying solo is way, way better than most people imagine.) But my fear of that reaction is also irrational because although I am occasionally greeted with “Well, you chose to be a single mom” or “Well, you wanted this!” I have also been offered food delivery, babysitting services, and all the free venting you could want. So although people occasionally reinforce my fear, most do not. Nonetheless, I have internalized unreasonable expectations the few have and projected them onto everyone. After all, I chose single motherhood and got lucky enough to finalize an adoption with a perfect little dude. I need to prove that neither of those were bad decisions, right? What baffles me about the absence of this convention is that every parent I know – regardless of the path to parenthood, the number of parents in the home, the number of children, or the amount of money and professional flexibility – feels something like this pressure to have it all together with smiles on our faces. But we also all know that a) parenting is really, really, really hard and b) that pressure to have it all together is an entirely unnecessary additional stress. We’re trying to raise tiny humans, for crying out loud!
Advice: let’s all be kinder to each other and to ourselves. Let’s remember that new parents are over the moon and more in love than they thought possible, but they’re also getting pooped on and missing sleep, privacy, that guest room, and the ability to just run into the store really quickly. When we focus on the former, we trivialize the latter, and the latter is definitely not trivial. And new parents, people want to help. If you’re tired and want a nap, just say so. No one will judge you, and people are not generally opposed to an hour or two of baby snuggles.
I shall now take the first step toward being kinder to myself about this: tomorrow is my son’s birthday. Of course I will celebrate his birth. I am so, so, so excited that he was born. But you know what else I’ll be celebrating? That I made it an entire year as a single, working mother of a small child. Because let’s be honest: that’s freaking awesome. So there.