“Here Are a Few Things No One Will Tell You Right Before You Have Your First Baby” originally appeared on Medium and The Fatherly Forum, and was reprinted with permission.
Six months and everyone is mostly still alive. Success. I now feel equipped to say that having a child is frequently and simultaneously the best and worst thing in my life — it’s a constant to-and-fro between heart-bursting elation and insurmountable regret. And what’s more, you’re all lying about it.
Living up to expectations
If you listen to social media, everyone’s having “the most amazing time” with their new bundle of joy. Yeah, it’s tough, but “Oh, I just love my little one! Loving every moment! Wouldn’t change this magical experience for the world!”
I’m calling bullshit on this. People have a near limitless propensity to lie about their experiences in order to align them with general expectations. Events like having a child are supposed to be wonderful and perfect. You’re supposed to be loving every minute of it. You’re supposed to be overwhelmed with love and joy. And apparently you’re supposed to be telling everyone about it, every second of every day.
But it isn’t always that clear cut. Nobody wants to talk about the difficulties, the hardships or the doubts, because these don’t match their own, and other people’s, expectations. There’s also the problem that comes with complaining about a choice you made, a choice not afforded to everyone. The result is a near-constant stream of updates from outwardly super-happy parents, joking about lack of sleep and dirty nappies, and generally looking like they’re having the best time ever. Sadly, that conflicts with reality: inside, many of us are in an emotional shit storm.
For the first three months, my son was in a never-ending — and not uncommon — two-hour cycle of eat, vomit, poop, cry, nap. It was like living in a hate-filled library as any sound you made could potentially wake him, or remind my wife that I was doing something that didn’t involve having a volatile child clamped to my nipple. His complete lack of ability to give any response, only demand everything, was soul-crushing.
Family would visit and exclaim, “Oh, he’s gorgeous! Isn’t being a parent wonderful?”
When I’d tell them, “No. No it is not. I haven’t slept for more than three solid hours in three months. This is zero fun. I’m mainly trying to justify not putting him out with the recycling,” I was met with shock and concern. Which just pissed me off because my family’s tales of “wonderfulness” were always interspersed with little gems like, “I cried solidly for two days when I had you.” What? But — you said …
The big fib
That idealized image that many feel obligated to present is a real problem. It provides a false comparison to which new parents inevitably compare themselves. Of course we can’t live up to those ideals — nobody could, because they’re simply not real. All they do is make parents doubt their own ability to raise a child because while they’re having one of the most difficult times of their lives, everyone else is apparently having a f*cking hoot.
The truth is a lot less rosy: data from Germany suggest that having your first child might make you more unhappy than divorce, unemployment, or even the death of a partner. Parents are exhausted due to the nightmare that is breastfeeding, sleep deprivation, depression, domestic isolation, and relationship breakdown. If you happen to be highly educated and over the age of 30, then these effects are even more pronounced.
But we don’t admit this. Feeling down after having a baby, the so-called “baby blues,” is actually so common that it’s considered normal and women are told to expect it. A further 10-15 percent of mothers suffer from full blown postnatal depression — although this figure may be substantially higher as many fail to even report it. Nobody wants to admit that perhaps they haven’t got things under control, that they’re not loving being a parent, that they don’t feel that instant overwhelming bond and love for their baby, that maybe they made a mistake.
The solution? Lie. A survey by Kiddicare of 1,000 mothers, showed that 92 percent felt pressured to come across to others as the “perfect parent.” As a result, 90 percent had lied about how well they’re doing after the birth of their child, and 41 percent refused help from friends and family to avoid being seen to not be coping. Ironically, 98 percent of mothers also said they’d like it if people were more honest about the whole thing.
Break the cycle
This has to stop. By all means, discuss the great things: those first smiles, words, and blunders. But let’s not give in to the stigma of admitting that sometimes we’re not okay. We need to talk openly about how difficult it is, how distressed it makes us, how much strain it puts on our relationships. How quite often we can’t cope, but how we have to because there is no way out. How sometimes we dwell on the notion that we’ve taken on more than we were prepared for, how often all we’re aiming to do is to get to the end of the day and have a glass of wine and sit quietly for half an hour, or that we simply don’t always know what we’re doing. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s the truth.
By being honest about parenthood it helps to balance out the fairytale that people feel obligated to tell. Ditching the bullshit is imperative, and we’ll all be better off for it. But like I said, there are plenty of amazing moments that will make you feel that heart-aching love and attachment we’ve all heard of (like when they tackle porridge for the first time!) — we just don’t need to pretend that’s all there is.
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