Two newly expectant parents recently asked my husband and me for advice about becoming parents. At first, we spoke to some of the lighter, more common truths about having babies—the sleepless hours, the blowout diapers, the potential relinquishing of one’s hours to rocking, holding, changing, cleaning, worrying, wearing pajamas, eating takeout and watching binge-worthy TV. (This last part isn’t so bad, so long as the baby isn’t wailing.)
For some reason—maybe because I love these two soon-to-be-parents, maybe because I was feeling especially reflective at that moment—I went deep, and fast, to some of the darker truths about raising children. I dove straight toward parenting’s ugly underbelly. To my surprise, instead of expressing fear and disgust, these two people thanked me for being so honest about these lesser-known realities of parenting.
And so I thought, perhaps my own dark parenting truths are ones that everyone should know.
1. You might regret becoming a parent
Few parents have the audacity or cruelty to admit this regret to their children, let alone speak these feelings out loud.
But I’d bet that many of us have felt fleeting tinges of regret. Those times when we’ve locked ourselves in the bathroom to cry. Those canceled plans and forgotten dreams. Those moments when we’ve wondered why the hell we wanted to commit to this whole child-rearing business in the first place.
2. You might like children less after you have children of your own
Once, in a college class discussion, I toyed with the idea of letting children run the world. They could make all our rules and solve all our problems, I thought, because they had a far better capacity for innocence and perfection and infinite love than adults did.
My professor then asked me, “Haven’t you ever read ‘Lord of the Flies’?”
She had a point.
It’s easy to cling to the myth of the innocence and perfection of childhood before you are a constant caretaker of children. My years of babysitting as a teenager and young adult did not prepare me for what I would discover as a parent. These days, I know that children are neither innocent nor perfect. They are, perhaps, less flawed than adults. But they are still fundamentally flawed.
For the most part, I only want to be around the flaws—the snot, the whining, the capriciousness, the meltdowns, the jealousy—of my own children, and maybe a few select others. All the rest can just stay home. Or at least stay only for a very, very short playdate.
3. You might lose friends
Parenthood disassembles and reconfigures your life in a way that few other events or experiences can.
Like puzzle pieces, some friends still fit after that initial reconfiguration. Some don’t fit until much later, far beyond those early chaotic years. Others never quite find their way back into your life.
Becoming a parent has fashioned both a mirror and a magnifying glass in front of me.
4. You might give up pieces of yourself that you once loved
No one has it all. No mother. No father. No person. All of life involves sacrifice, and parenting always demands its share of it.
It’s like those friends who stay, or return, or never come back at all. Some dreams and passions and loves stay even after the babies are born. Some return. Others don’t.
5. You might find parenting unfulfilling
In fact, I would argue that parenting is not completely fulfilling for anyone—nor should it be. Our children’s lives cannot and should not consume our own (much as they might devour our time and attention). Our children are not and should not be viewed as extensions of ourselves.
Parenting can fill one with love and wonder and joy. But it cannot take the place of all the other possible loves and wonders and joys in the world.
6. You might one day feel as if your child is a stranger
It might be that first time they utter, “I hate you.” The moments when they disappoint you. The realization that they have gone off and developed friends of their own, interests of their own, ideas of their own. Sometimes the strangeness is quite beautiful. Other times, it’s frightening.
7. You might face hard, impossible truths about your own parents
Becoming a parent has fashioned both a mirror and a magnifying glass in front of me. I can see in sharper focus all the mistakes that my own parents made when I was a child. But I can also see myself making some of those same mistakes, and new mistakes of my own, now that I am a parent.
My heart breaks when my children walk out the door without me.
8. You might understand, for the first time, horrific things
A new mother once confided in me that she never understood how people could shake babies until she had a crying, inconsolable baby of her own.
I never understood what she meant until, years later, when I had a baby of my own. Red-stippled eyes, leaking breasts, my own tears like tributaries feeding into a river of my newborn’s snot and saliva. I felt the urge to throw things, to scream, and, yes, to shake.
As I set my baby down in his crib and cried my way out into the hallway, I thought of parents who had less support, less security. Less of an ability to stop, set the baby down and walk away.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” I thought.
9. You might feel true, blinding rage toward your flesh and blood
Audre Lorde once described motherhood as the “suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.”
I feel this ambivalence nearly every day of my life.
10. Your heart might break, every day, forever
My heart breaks when my children walk out the door without me. It breaks when I think of all I cannot protect them from. It breaks when I consider how I would be destroyed if I were to lose them.
My heart breaks with love for them. And it’s a different, darker, deeper, more flawed and more broken love than I ever imagined before I had children.