Does Parenthood Have to Be a Waking Nightmare?

Stressed-mum-579839When I was engaged, people were enthusiastic about my upcoming marriage. A lot of them said, by way of congratulations, “You’re going to love marriage!” and “Welcome to the marriage club!” It wasn’t until after we were married and hitting all the little bumps a couple hits in their first year that the truth came out from our friends: marriage is hard. It’s work. It’s a lot of compromise and dying to yourself. But, it’s worth it!

Pregnancy is so different. First, the amount of joy and support people have expressed is far beyond what it was when I became engaged. I mean, if you want to make your friends happy cry, let them see you pregnant and touch your belly. But, at the same time, being a pregnant woman means I’m a magnet for warnings, horror stories, and sarcastic advice like, “Get your sleep now!” I’m also recalling all of the horrific, poop-filled status updates and blog posts I’ve read in the past few years; they’ve all lain dormant and now are coming back to me in one giant, teeming mass of dread that basically boils down to one idea: having a baby is the worst thing ever.

I’m not crazy to think this. Our culture sends this message all the time, from sitcoms and commercials to our friends’ social media feeds (trust me, the tales of sleeplessness and potty training-gone-wrong have a lot more staying power than photos of their Halloween costumes). Please don’t get me started on the endless mommy-blog-rant-articles that show up in my Facebook feed almost every day because my mom friends have either liked or shared them.

Slate writer Ruth Graham wrote last year how this culture of “real talk” about parenting is confusing and alarming for the non-parents and expecting parents of the world. About those Scary Mommy/Rage Against the Minivan type of viral blog posts, Graham notes, “My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff. ‘So true!’ my friends write over and over again, because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves. (Somehow they do find the time to blog.)”

And then I come across a study saying the birth of a couple’s first child made them unhappier than even losing their spouse or losing their job. Yikes. Or this one: “Stressed, Tired, Rushed: A Portrait of the Modern Family.” Or Jennifer Senior’s bestselling book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.

So as my pregnancy winds down (winds up?), I can’t help but feel incredibly ambivalent about the whole idea of having a baby. Mostly negative feelings, to be honest. I get to quit my job in a few weeks–yay!–but then I have to endure birthing a baby out of this body of mine, with all the pain and discomfort that brings, and then what do I have to look forward to? Apparently, more physical discomfort and horrors in the postpartum/breastfeeding phase, absolutely no sleep, and a hefty dose of “mom guilt” that other women swear is inescapable. And I’m supposed to be excited? Sure, once in a while I feel great anticipation over seeing our daughter’s face for the first time, watching her learn and grow into her own little person, but then these other voices come crashing in, talking about baby blues and postpartum depression, destroyed marriages and lost selfhood and living in “crisis mode” until the children are at least halfway through elementary school.

Since when did having and caring for a baby and/or children become a crisis, rather than the most natural thing human beings do?

Robert has noticed me sinking into a more and more negative state about our upcoming addition, and he suggested I just sit down and think about all the great things about having a baby and starting our family. He’s right. I need to dwell on the positive a bit more, and keep looking at my favorite positive mommy blogs (Love Taza and Cup of Jo, I’m looking at you!) that don’t do the “I haven’t showered in 3 weeks and my clothes are covered in spit up and I can’t remember the last time I had a thought to myself but this is the best job in the world!” dance. They focus on the positive, which is what I need to hear right now. (I should also probably rewatch all 6 seasons of Parenthood, right?) The real, poop-covered stuff is inevitable, and I’m completely aware of that. I’m not going to be blindsided by the fact that babies cry and spit up and don’t sleep for 8 hour stretches. But I hope I will be blindsided by some of the good things about motherhood, some of the tiny joys that people don’t share–maybe because they seem too insignificant? Or because they’d feel they’re bragging? Or because they feel too special, too vulnerable to share?

I love reading the motherhood interviews on Mother magazine, and this woman’s answer to the question, “What was the biggest surprise to you about having children?” really stood out to me:

“All the things that worried me about having kids before I had them were the wrong things. I worried, really worried, about things, like how I would not be able to have brunch or sleep in on Sunday mornings. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what my life was going to look like and that seemed terrifying. Of course, all those things are true—I never sleep in, I rarely have brunch, but what I didn’t know is how little I would care. I try to tread gently when I say this to friends who are deciding if they want kids or not, because I can sound like I’m into evangelizing, but my experience of having a baby was that it suddenly pulled back the curtain to an entire part of the world I couldn’t see before. I had no idea how big my heart could stretch, how vulnerable that would make me feel, and what an amazing experience it would be to learn to live in the world with all that vulnerability.”

When women share like this, it helps push back the dark dread that can crowd out any joy I feel at the prospect of bringing new life into the world. I want to try and follow Mary Oliver’s advice: “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” I can easily imagine all the trials and the hardships of new parenthood, but what I can’t imagine is the bond I’ll share with our daughter, or the beautiful little moments of caring for her and watching her grow. That doesn’t mean they won’t happen. I just need to keep making space in my little worried heart for them.

I’d love to hear your positive experiences of motherhood, too, or maybe your thoughts on why our culture has tipped so dangerously toward sharing the bad instead of sharing the good?


6 thoughts on “Does Parenthood Have to Be a Waking Nightmare?

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  1. I totally agree with u being a mom has had some of the most enduring moments and greatest joys. It seems as soon as we walk out the door to this hateful world that the trouble of kids start. The mommy competition caught me off guard when I had our first kid and my best friend had hers. I could not breastfeed for medical reasons and she was a human food factory. Good meaning are u sure your kid is going to get all the nutrients she needs caught me off guard. Difference in choices for discipline either earn my husband and I good job high fives from other parents or well placed threats that our kids will be criminals. Biggest thing I learned after three kids I don’t give two hoots and a holler what anyone thinks about my kids. The world is so negative and so many people think they know how to raise my kids. There are days I look at those three and think I have lost my mind to be a mom. But then there are days that u see them soar and u can do nothing but be amazed at the smaller version of u and your husband. One of the most enduring things as a mom is when I am upset about something and my youngest comes up to me and tells me I am beautiful and loves me. Parenthood is not easy yes there is no sleep at times and sick kids break your heart and take every ounce of energy u have. But watching them grow is priceless the love that u have for them is beyond words and when they being to show u the love they have for u it truly is a great blessing


  2. I always love to read your thoughts on the world, Joy. And now that you’re having a baby I’m even more eager to hear your commentary on this slice of life that I’m also living.

    I was giving some thought to why the cultural expectation is to share all the wonderful parts about marriage, but all the hard parts about parenthood. Weird, huh? Both are incredibly trying and incredibly rewarding. I think there are a couple reasons we don’t talk as openly about the hard stuff in marriage. First, if you post about the fight you just had with your spouse on social media, they’re old enough to read it and you’re just going to put more strain on the relationship. Also, super tacky. Don’t throw your spouse under the bus on social media. But we do it to our kids all the time. Maybe because they’re not old enough to have their own facebook accounts?

    And why don’t we share all the good stuff about parenthood? I think you did hit on something when you suggested it sounds like bragging. For example, my 5 week old slept a 7 hour stretch last night!! That’s amazing and wonderful and I was so excited and I feel so rested. But I didn’t post it on facebook because everyone whose kid didn’t sleep 7 hours straight at night til much later would give me dirty looks from the privacy of their own home and if I did it too much they’d block me from their newsfeed. I guess moms like to commiserate about the hard stuff and are hesitant to brag about the good stuff.

    Yes it’s a huge adjustment. Yes you’ll be tired and stressed. It is very hard. But it’s a new skill that takes some time to master. You have to give yourself grace and time to learn and then you find a new normal. It won’t look like the one you had before kids, but that’s okay. Maybe all the complaining and not accepting it as “the most natural thing that human beings do” comes from cultural expectations that somehow we’re always supposed to live like we’re 21 year olds. We’re always supposed to weigh 100 lbs and go out for drinks at 10pm and be glamorous. But those are ridiculous expectations for parents of young kids. We don’t celebrate this life phase much as a culture and maybe because of that, somehow we feel shortchanged when we can’t be a parent and keep up with those expectations. I don’t know, I’m just speculating now. I do know that everything about my life changed all at once and it took awhile to re-calibrate. But then new things started sounding like fun and took delight in simpler things because I could watch them through the eyes of my child.

    So, what’s the good stuff about parenting? Like falling in love, it’s the best natural high that life has to offer. I can’t tell you how much my heart soars when my 2 year old son tells me “I love you, Mommy,” or when he says something terribly clever or I realize he can count by 10s to 100 already. (Again, those things don’t go on FB because they sound like bragging. I don’t tend to share all those amazing things with other moms because I don’t want them to compare their kids to mine and whatnot, but I couldn’t be prouder.) Your capacity to love just widens beyond what you can imagine. There is joy in the everyday things of life – walking down the street talking with my toddler about the trees, nursing my newborn – because you’re doing it with someone you love. And love is the best thing about the human experience.


    1. Corinne, I love hearing YOUR thoughts on the world! Oh man, what you said about cultural expectations…that is so true! I have been thinking about that myself. We are just so much more selfish, I think, as a culture (as a generation?). We don’t want to grow up…we want the freedom and not the responsibility. That’s part of what made marriage hard for me at first! When our culture tells us individualism, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness are the highest values and even rights, it’s hard to reconcile that with the demands and “loss of rights” that come along with parenthood. Since being in Colorado I’ve been able to spend a ton of time with my great aunt Juanita, a woman in her early seventies. She doesn’t understand all the fuss that goes into parenting these days. She’s so matter-of-fact about it; you just take care of them! Teach them what’s right. Just do it. So maybe it’s also the information overload we deal with that makes things more stressful as well? Anyway, thanks for joining the conversation!


  3. Joy, this is great and very true. We haven’t had a child yet, obviously, but even as a teacher I hear from all the other parents, “Wait! Enjoy your own time! You’ll never sleep again once you have one.” First, I’m a teacher, I don’t really get that very often anyway…Yet, I work with 10 year olds every day, and as much as they can drive me nuts, they are incredible and resiliant human beings. They have their own personality and show who they are becoming each and every day in the classroom. Constantly I wonder about my past students, what they look like in Middle School, how they’ve changed and walked into young adulthood. I have students who are now Sophomores! And the thing that gets me excited, that gets me pumped for having kids is knowing I get to see the whole process! There is no year that I am going to miss seeing with my own children, and that just blows my mind! I can’t wait to see what they look like, what traits they pick up from Elijah and I, and the adventures we’ll have. It won’t be easy, but it will be amazing.


    1. Krista, that’s so true–I think teachers have a really unique perspective on kids! What’s funny is, even my one year teaching high school had me looking forward to having kids more, watching my little freshman grow up in the year I had them (especially the boys!).


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