Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
For some people, becoming a parent is a natural part of life. They grew up around babies and kids, and so nothing seems out of the ordinary when a loud little eight-pound bald person shows up at their house one day. Not so for others of us.
I was an only child. I don’t recall ever having a friend who had more than two siblings living at home, and nobody I knew had a baby in the family. In the years after I graduated from college, few people I knew were married, none had kids. By the time I got married, I’d lived in an adults-only world for so long that I had this this vague impression that new human beings were added to the world through a secret cloning room at the back of Starbucks, emerging as fully dressed 20-somethings complete with lattes and wire-rimmed glasses.
So when my first baby was born, I was shocked. I’d never changed a diaper in my life. My husband had never held a baby. We were utterly unprepared for for the months and years that lay ahead.
Amazingly, it’s all worked out. My oldest child is about to celebrate his seventh birthday, and he and his siblings are only occasionally mistaken for feral children. For those who just stepping onto the parenting roller coaster and are similiarly unprepared, here are a few things I wish I’d known in the first few years:
1. Get some sleep. You’re not going to get as much sleep as you’d like with a baby in the house, and it’s important to accept that. But that doesn’t mean that it’s fine to walk around like a zombie for months at a time—your body needs regular rest for your mental and physical wellbeing. During more than one postpartum period I’ve hit a point where I felt like I was going insane, only to realize later that I was just really, really tired. Some parents find that cosleeping works wonders for making sure everyone gets enough sleep, others prefer easing babies onto a schedule (personally, I’m a big fan of The Sleep Lady’s methods). Whichever way you approach it, make it a priority to get as much sleep as you can.
2. Get some help. As you know, I’m a big believer that stay-at-home parents need help. You may not feel comfortable leaving your baby with a sitter yet, but consider hiring a kid from the neighborhood to watch the baby occasionally while you take a nap or do stuff around the house. If there’s no room in the budget for any help at all, chat with your spouse about making sure that you both have regular down time. You’d be amazed at the difference it can make it your life when you’re getting time to rest and recharge your batteries.
3. Remember that your parenting philosophy is not your religion. When I had my first child, I adhered strictly to the advice of a certain popular parenting philosophy—even after it should have been clear that this was a horrible fit for our family. I’d fallen into the idea that this philosophy was for parents who loved their children; all other viewpoints were for lazy suckers who couldn’t care less about the wellbeing of their offspring. Only after 20 months of misery and a near-breakdown did I finally admit that this wasn’t working, and began doing what works for us instead of what Dr. So-and-So says is the perfect way to parent.
4. When listening to parenting advice, consider the source. Specifically, consider the advice-giver’s temperament. In my first year as a mom, I took the advice of some well-meaning friends who told me to nap when the baby naps, then schedule as many playdates as possible to keep myself sane. I have trouble falling asleep, so my attempts at napping usually ended up in huge frustration sessions where I’d be dozing off just when the baby cried; and as an introvert, I found that socializing depleted my already-low energy stores—what I really needed to unwind was quiet time to read a book. My friends’ advice worked well for them because they’re extroverts who sleep easily; but for this introvert insomniac, it was a recipe for disaster.
5. Make time for your marriage. You aren’t doing your child any favors by putting your marriage on the backburner in this busy phase of life. If there’s no room in the budget for babysitting and dinners out, schedule romantic at-home date nights at least once a month.
6. No, seriously. Make time for your marriage. It’s easy to nod at the advice to put your marriage first, but then get swept up in the craziness of daily life and end up going weeks or even months without any meaningful time together as a couple. This is especially true for new parents. So make sure that you’re making a conscious effort to strengthen your marriage, no matter how tired and busy you are.
Hopefully that’s some good food for thought for new parents. (Now I just need someone to write a survival guide to the teen years for me.)
Experienced parents, what are your tips for moms and dads just starting out?