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The Mother of All Parenting BooksThe Ultimate Guide to Raising a Happy, Healthy Child from Preschool through the Preteens
By Ann Douglas
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-5618-5
Chapter OneThe Truth About Parenting
"I think parenting needs to come out of the closet as the messy, wonderful, scary, daring occupation that it is." -Natalie, 32, mother of two
"I used to think parents who told me that my whole life would change when I had kids were either bad parents or crazy. How could it be that hard? Then I had Olivia!" -Mary, 37, mother of one
Back when my first three kids were all under five and still small enough to fit in the bathtub at the same time, we had this crazy bath-time ritual. I would put everyone in the tub, pop my favorite CD into the portable stereo, and crank the tunes up loudly enough that the floor would begin to vibrate. (Hey, where is it written that mothers can't be party animals?)
Anyway, the CD in question was Momnipotent singer/ songwriter Nancy White's ode to motherhood. Although the CD is mainly filled with songs that speak to how frustrating and exhausting it is to be a mother, one song on the CD touched my heart like no other song about motherhood ever has. The song in question, "Mammas Have a Secret," talks about the powerful bond between parent and child-and why it's impossible to explain that bond to anyone who is not a parent.
Here's how the song starts out:
Mammas have a secret Daddies have, too it's a little secret they'll never tell you 'cause if you don't have a child so naughty and sweet they don't want you to feel that your life is incomplete and if you have a child there's nothing to say because you know the secret anyway.
I think what's inspired me to write (literally) millions of words about pregnancy and parenting over the years is a passionate desire to capture some of the magic of that parent-child bond on paper. The more I try to write about it, however, the more obvious it becomes to me that a lot of what happens between parent and child simply defies description. It can be a kind of humbling experience if, like me, you're someone who makes her living working with words!
As you've no doubt gathered by now, the focus of this chapter is on what it's like to be a parent today-the good, the bad, and the ugly (let's just say I'm big on full disclosure). I start out by talking about why no one can tell you how tough it is to be a parent; like riding a bicycle, it's one of those things you have to learn by doing. Then I share with you what no one ever seems to mention (at least until you become a parent) but that you definitely need to know-my attempt to put down on paper some of the things I've learned over the course of my parenting career. Next, I discuss what's involved in mastering the fine art of co-parenting-sharing parenting responsibilities with another human being. Then, I focus on the importance of investing in your relationship with your child's other parent-assuming that you still have a relationship with this person-even including how you can keep the sizzle in your sex life after you have kids. (Bet you didn't realize that this was going to turn out to be such a steamy read! To think my publisher slapped such a respectable-looking cover on the book!) Finally, I wrap up the chapter by talking about why it's so important to ensure that you meet your own needs while you're raising a family. As they like to say on airplanes, "Put on your own oxygen mask first."
Why No One Tells You How Tough It Is to Be a Parent
So, what is it that makes it so difficult for us to talk about the experience of being a parent-particularly the low points? (The high points, after all, inevitably find their way into Hallmark cards, long-distance phone company commercials, and other pop-culture outtakes. It's the low points that we seem to want to kick under the carpet.)
I think a couple of things discourage us from being forthcoming about what parenthood is all about. For one thing, we all tend to suffer from parental amnesia: a condition that sets in as whatever childrearing crisis you were dealing with last month or last year recedes farther and farther into the parenting fog. I also think that our society fosters a well-meaning desire to save other parents some unnecessary worry. (Who knows? They may luck out and end up with the world's first truly trouble-free adolescent, so why should you burden them with all the hair-raising tales of the latest exploits of your little darling?) And then, there's a slightly more selfish reason for holding our parenting cards close to our chests: We don't want to admit that we haven't quite got our act together on the parenting front.
You see, although most of us are happy to admit that dishes sit unwashed in the kitchen sink or that we had to forage around inside the clothes dryer in order to find a clean bra to put on this morning, we're reluctant to turn to others in our lives for support if our nine-year-old is acting like a bully at school or our sixteen-year-old is experimenting with sex and drugs. The June Cleavers of the world may have managed to escape from the kitchen and allow themselves to break free from the pressure to play the role of "the perfect housewife," but it may be another few decades before we learn how to let go of the pressure to be "the perfect mother"-the most impossible role of all.
What no one ever tells you until you become a parent
If Leo Tolstoy were a modern-day self-help book writer, he no doubt would have rewritten the opening line of Anna Karenina like this: "Every family is dysfunctional in its own way."
That may be true, but we can still learn a lot from the experiences of other parents. There have been countless times in my life when I have thought to myself, "I wish someone had told me it would be like this"-most notably during the extreme culture shock associated with becoming a parent for the first time and upon becoming the parent of an adolescent for the first time. (For those of you who haven't experienced the latter yet, let me give you a quick heads up-it's kind of like postpartum times 10,000.)
Although I don't pretend to have all the answers (please see my repeated disclaimers in the introduction and elsewhere in this chapter!), I feel that I owe it to the universe to put down on paper the few things I have managed to learn about parenting as a result of raising four children over the course of the past 15 years. (Just think of the number of "parent hours" I've clocked during that time!)
I'm not promising that these are the most profound things you're ever going to read on the subject of parenting. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that they're not! But, I hope that you'll gain at least a few insights from reading my thoughts on the subject.
Anyway, here are 10 things that no one ever tells you about becoming a parent, but that you definitely need to know:
1. There's no job description for the job of parent. Can you imagine agreeing to take on a job for which there was no job description, no orientation program, no training program, no performance review process-in other words, none of the usual bells and whistles that we have come to expect in a typical employment situation? That's what parenting is like. It's the ultimate fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. Until you're on the job, you have no idea what the job involves or how difficult it really is, which explains, I suppose, why so many of us end up applying for the job in the first place!
2. There's no such thing as "the perfect age." You often hear parents talk about how much they are looking forward to their kids reaching such-and-such an age because it's "the perfect age." Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no such thing. Every age comes with its own unique mix of joys and challenges. Cathy, a 37-year-old mother of two, agrees with me on this point: "I used to wish that my kids were older, thinking that it would get easier once they reached a different stage. I've stopped doing that because I now realize that it's all challenging, and you've just got to concentrate on whatever stage you're dealing with right now. This too shall pass, and then another complicated stage will kick in!"
3. Nothing about parenting happens in a predictable, linear fashion. If there's a Murphy's Law of Parenthood, it goes something like this: The more convinced you are that you've finally gotten through a rough stage with your child, the greater the likelihood that your child will immediately take three steps backwards. (Ah, how much easier life would be if children were programmed to make constant movement forward, like little wind-up robots. Never mind the fact it would be supremely boring, of course; we're talking about efficiency here, ladies and gentlemen!) As any veteran parent can tell you, it's a case of two steps forward and one step back whenever a child is attempting to master a new skill. I've also noticed that certain behaviors can return years after the fact. The whining and temper tantrums that were so common during the toddler years can make themselves felt again during the preteen years. There are days when I swear my daughter's infant colic has come back to haunt us again, some 15 years after the fact!
4. The experts don't have all the answers. Now that may sound like blasphemy coming from the lips of a parenting book author, but I've hung out with enough emperors to know that a lot of them don't own any clothes. (Just in case you're wondering, I certainly don't pretend to have a particularly extensive wardrobe myself!) Part of the problem, of course, is that the parenting experts rarely agree about anything. Put an attachment-parenting guru next to an advocate of tough love on a TV talk show, and you're likely to see a fist fight break out during commercial breaks! The net result for parents, unfortunately, is information overload and an unwillingness to trust our own parenting instincts.
5. Parenting in the real world is a whole lot messier than parenting on TV. (Unless, of course, you happen to tune into Malcolm in the Middle.) "The media paints a much rosier picture of what parenting is all about," says Stephanie, a 30-year-old mother of one. "Take sitcoms that revolve around families, for example. The issues that they deal with are always watered down, and the solutions always come so easily. The parents' reactions are always terribly politically correct and usually nothing even close to reality." The fact that the parenting issue of the day can be solved in 30 minutes or less only adds insult to injury. Unless you happen to be raising a tribe of Walton or Cosby clones, you're unlikely to be able to pull that off in the real world!
6. Parenthood is a long-term project. You have to wait for the final payoff. The ultimate reward for any parent-successfully raising a happy, healthy child to adulthood-is many years in the making. What's required in the meantime is a huge leap of faith that things will turn out as they should. "It would be great to be able to look inside a crystal ball and know that everything you are doing as a parent will work out in the end," says Cindy, a 32-year-old mother of three. "It can be difficult to make decisions for your children now without knowing what the future may hold." 7. Parenting can be hell on your self-esteem. "My confidence in my parenting abilities definitely ebbs and flows," confesses Tracie, a 27-year-old mother of two. "Some days I wonder how anyone can let me be a parent: My house is a disaster, my child is not listening and is being cranky, and I'm yelling. And then, other days, we have a really good time doing something together, and I am really amazed at just how much my son knows and is learning, and I take a moment to pat myself on the back for the part I have had to play in that. Knowing that he is happy, confident, and secure makes me realize that I must be doing something right. Still, I would have to say that parenting can be hell on your self-esteem!"
8. Kids force you to confront any "stuff" that you may have tried to bury underneath the carpet. If you try to ignore the stuff that's hidden under the carpet, you're likely to trip over it and fall flat on your face. "Kids will make you love them in a way you never thought possible," writes Harriet Lerner in The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life. "They will also confront you with all the painful and unsavory emotions that humans put so much energy into trying to avoid. Children will teach you about yourself and what it's like not to be up to the most important responsibility you'll ever have. They'll teach you that you are capable of deep compassion and also that you are definitely not the nice, calm, competent, clear-thinking, highly evolved person you fancied yourself to be before you became a mother."
9. Nothing can prepare you for the depth of the love you will feel for your child. Now we come to the final truth about parenting: Life doesn't get any better than this. "No matter how much other people, even those you trust, tell you about parenting, I don't think anything can fully prepare you for the love you will feel for your child," says Stephanie, a 30-year-old mother of one. "The emotions are so strong and so intense that you cannot imagine them until you experience them for yourself."
10. The physical demands of parenting are the easy part. It's the emotional demands that practically sink you. A dear friend of mine is due to give birth to her first child any day now. I haven't had the heart to tell her that the aches and pains of pregnancy and childbirth are just the beginning of the pain that she can expect to experience during the next 18 years and beyond.
Excerpted from The Mother of All Parenting Books by Ann Douglas Excerpted by permission.
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