Separating the parenting myths from the realities

If you are pregnant with your first baby, you might have heard that you can’t really prepare for the experience of parenthood.  Sure, you can (and should) take all the classes, the childbirth prep, newborn care, breastfeeding 101, etc, and you can check all the items off of your registry, but is that really preparation?  If you have already had your first baby, you may or may not remember all the preconceived expectations you had about what it would like once your baby was born.  Once we get over the initial shock of how reality is vastly different from our expectations, some are able to move on and forget what we thought it would be like.  Others take a bit longer to mourn the loss of those expectations.  Either way, in my experience working with countless new parents, most are quite shocked about how different life really is once parenthood hits for real.

In my work, I hear a wide variety of reactions from new moms about what those early days of parenthood are like and how they had thought things would be different.  Here are some of the common themes:

  • “I expected that when I saw my baby for the first time, it would be love at first sight and I would instantly have a connection with her.”  The reality is that a newborn baby interacts very little other than to express its needs for food, changing and comfort from the world that is vastly different from life in utero.  For the first 6-8 weeks, your baby doesn’t even smile at you.  Until those smiles come, it is hard to know that your baby even recognizes all the hard work and effort you are putting into keeping her alive.  You do a lot of “giving” in those early weeks and not a lot of getting back unless you consider all you get back in spit up and poops.  Although the rewards come later (and they will come, I promise), many moms are disappointed that it isn’t immediate or that they don’t feel that media-hyped sense of baby bliss and joy.  The truth is that you will develop that connection with your baby as the two of you grow together and get to know each other, but sometimes it takes time.
  • “I plan to take my baby where ever I go and my lifestyle won’t change a bit.”  Some babies fill the role of “schlep-along-baby” better than others.  Much of this is due to your child’s temperament.  Some babies are happy to go wherever, chilling quietly, looking pretty in their carseat while others may hate the car, scream when you put them in the carseat, and complain when there is a raucous going on.  But whether your lifestyle changes may not be entirely related to whether your baby is accommodating to how you used to live your life.  Some of it may be due to the fact that the things that you found enjoyable or that you wanted to devote your time to are no longer as important as being with your child.  Nights out with the girls until 2am or all day work retreats no longer rank as high on your priority list of things you want to be doing with your time.
  • “I will instinctually know how to be a mom.”  We all know that there is know manual for parenthood, but many of us come into it thinking that we will know what are the best decisions to make from day one.  Even if you have life experience that puts you in direct contact with newborn babies, it is always different when it is your own child.  There are going to be times when you have no idea what you are doing.  That’s okay.  Your child is figuring you out just as much as you are figuring her out.  It takes time.  Those parenting instincts develop as you grow to know your child and what she expects from you as a parent.  No matter what all the books (that really just contradict each other) say, there is no one right way to be a parent.  It is about gaining confidence and coming to know that what you decide for your child is what is best for your family even if it does not fit 100% within a particular “philosophy.”
  • “Breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed my baby, so it should be easy.”  From my perspective, this is one of the most wide-spread misconceptions of motherhood.  Yes, women have been breastfeeding their babies since the beginning of time but in a culture where we don’t witness our mothers/aunts/sisters/cousins/neighbors breastfeeding with regularity and frequency, it often ends up being much harder then we expected.  Certainly there are a lot of incredible experts available to help if you are struggling (and you should call one if you are having trouble breastfeeding), but breastfeeding is largely something that women in the United States do in isolation.  We don’t have the constant support of other mothers around us as our cheering section or personal guides to tell us what is normal and what isn’t.  This can lead to weeks and months of pain, frustration, depression and feelings of guilt.  Finding a community (whether it is in person or online) of other mothers to share your breastfeeding concerns can be extremely beneficial.

Linda Szmulewitz is on the board of directors of Breastfeed Chicago.  She is a licensed clinical social worker and developer/group facilitator/owner of The Chicago New Moms Group, a 6 week educational and supportive program for first time moms of babies ages 0-6 months old.  She is the mom of two exclusively breastfed children, now ages 7 and 4.  


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