When I gave birth to my first child in 1983 at age 24, I realized about thirty-six hours into this new adventure that babysitting as a young teen, assisting with a pack of deaf Boy Scouts in college, and nannying part-time for a few months when I was first married was not sufficient training for motherhood. Though I never consciously figured any of it was, I’d stayed away from parenting books during my pregnancy. After more than a year of trying to conceive, I was completely focused on being pregnant. I figured I’d get to the parenting info when I needed it. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, right? I wasn’t ready.
Once we came home from the hospital with a tiny baby girl on a July day where the temps were only slightly cooler than the surface of the sun, I had the 24/7 reality of motherhood as a motivator. At 3 a.m. on that first sleep-deprived night home with a newborn, I was now ready to tackle motherhood.
I looked to my elders for some guidance. My mom relied on a tattered copy of that 1950′s parenting guru, Dr. Spock, to guide her, though she admitted she rarely followed his free-wheeling advice. My mother-in-law told me she didn’t remember much about babies. The single piece of advice she passed on to me was her old-school doctor’s recommendation to have a beer when she nursed her baby so she’d relax and produce more milk. Though Dr. Spock encouraged parents to trust their instincts, if I had a beer every time I nursed my daughter, my instincts would be pickled by the time she was six months old.
Instead, I enrolled myself in the new parent crash course, thanks to the local library and my local Kroch and Brentano’s bookstore. I can’t recall the titles of any of the books I read (after all, it was 30 years ago), but I do remember stashing bits of information from each volume in my mental file catalog. Of course, a fair measure of the the advice in some of the books dueled with advice in others. Co-sleep with your baby. No, put the baby in her crib and sleep train her. Breast feed until at least a year. No, wean the baby when he or she starts teething. So much advice, and it all sounded so darn reasonable in print.
I thought if I could just decipher the right combination of information, my babies would live happily ever after. Sounds pretty naive, doesn’t it? I’ve since learned that a lot of new parents bring their best problem-solving, code-breaking skills to the task of child-rearing. Information is important, don’t get me wrong. It’s helpful to have information about a newborn’s developmental stages and how to comfort a colicky baby and when to call the pediatrician at 3 a.m. But I think I overloaded on new mommy information – and that was before there were a gazillion mommy blogs and books and podcasts and Youtube diaper changing videos out there. I can not imagine what it is like for earnest new parents today.
Only a few weeks passed before I discovered that the thing that carried me through those first sleepless nights and everything else that followed wasn’t a good skill set or pithy parenting advice so full of certainty and promise of “success”. What carried me and taught me what I needed to know was love. My love for my three children. The Father’s love for me. Sounds so simplistic, doesn’t it? This mom love has undone me and remade me for the last three decades, and has carried me through some impossibly difficult challenges in recent years, challenges for which there are no parenting books with sure answers waiting for me to buy and devour at my local bookstore.
Not long ago, I was asked to share a brief, wise devotional thought at a dear friend’s baby shower. It was time to give some sage advice to my friend and a roomful of her friends. 30 years of parenthood and 10 years of grandparenthood, and the essence of what I tried to say was, “You know we’ve been through some really, really hard things in the family department in recent years. But I’d do it all, all over again. There is no joy greater than loving your child, and experiencing God’s love for you and that little one as you do in the trenches of each day. I will tell you my stories, and be honest with you about my failures. I will be there for you in whatever way you need and I’ll pray for you.”
When I think about it, this was the advice I needed most 30 years ago.
Veteran parents, what advice would you give to a new mom or dad?