What I Wish I'd Known
by Rachel Dunstan Muller
As I sit down to write this, I’m waiting to go into labour with my fifth child. The nursery is ready, my hospital bag is packed, and I even have a few homemade meals in the freezer. With all my preparations finished, I’ve had some time to reflect on the things I wish I’d known the first time I gave birth 16 years ago. I was as prepared for the reality of parenthood as any new mother—which is to say I didn’t have a clue what I was getting in to. But experience is a great teacher. I learned some essential lessons during the challenging years following the arrival of twins and the birth of a third daughter less than two years later. Unfortunately, I learned most of these lessons the hard way.
I’m introverted by nature, and I was painfully shy as a younger adult. Add to the list a move up-Island, a husband who’d just returned to school, and the fact that no one else in my social group was having children, and you have the perfect recipe for isolation. Isolation isn’t great for anyone, but it’s particularly unhealthy for a new mom. As lonely as I was, it wasn’t until my third daughter was six months old that I worked up the courage to venture out and meet other parents at the local parent-child drop-in group in the basement of a nearby school. The world opened up again almost immediately. I made friends. I had somewhere to take my kids. Best of all, I had people to talk to who were living the same frustrations and challenges that I was living.
Over the years, I’ve had varying experiences with other drop-in centers and playgroups. Some fit better than others. If you’re a new parent, I urge you to explore the options available in your community. If things don’t click after a few visits, try the next group on your list. To find Island playgroups and other parent-child venues, check Island Parent, your local Public Health Unit and neighborhood recreation centre.
The second mistake I made as a new mother was spending my days almost entirely on the couch. I was in reasonable shape before my first pregnancy, but my fitness level plummeted in the months that followed the birth of my twin daughters. I was sleep-deprived and exhausted, but the complete lack of physical activity didn’t help my energy level or my mental state.
When I was pregnant with my third child, I resolved that I was too young to be old. I made plans to exercise and eat a healthier diet, and I put those plans into practice. I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so I took out exercise videos from the library. I also walked a lot, with my twins in a double stroller and my youngest in an infant baby carrier and later a backpack. The library provided me with a great selection of health and recipe books. I started eating more whole foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and beans), and less processed food.
The difference exercise and better nutrition made was dramatic. Not only did I return to my pre-pregnancy weight, but I gained energy, stamina and a renewed sense of well-being. I was also a happier, more patient mother. I learned first hand that it was much easier to care for young children when I was taking proper care of myself.
One lesson that’s been harder for me to learn over the years is that mothers of newborns shouldn’t aspire to be super-moms. About a month after the birth of my first child, a well-meaning woman I didn’t know forwarded a letter to me through my sister-in-law. Among other bits of advice, she suggested I not worry about washing the kitchen floor daily; it was enough to sweep it. As a mother of twins herself she meant to be encouraging, but I had to laugh. I was in pure survival mode at that point. It hadn’t crossed my mind to wash the kitchen floor—I could barely squeeze in a shower. In fact, there were days that I wore the same clothes for 72 hours at a stretch.
My standards were considerably higher 14 years later, when my fourth daughter arrived. I had to constantly remind myself that my two most important tasks were taking care of my newborn and staying healthy and sane myself. Almost everything else could be delegated, or allowed to slide. Having said that, I have learned that a little organization makes my life easier. The meaning of organization will be different for every woman. For me it can be as simple as laying out clothes for myself at night, or keeping a list of easy meal ideas on the fridge. It also means making a short list of the tasks I’d like to accomplish each day—and I do mean short.
Perhaps the most important lesson that four children and 16 years of parenting have taught me is that each parenting stage is temporary. Nothing could have prepared me for the sleep deprivation I went through when my twins first came home from the hospital. In that exhausted and mind-altered state, I saw 18 sleepless years stretched out in front of me like a black tunnel. That was ridiculous, of course. Babies do eventually sleep through the night. But at the time it felt like a permanent state of affairs.
I now know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, whether it’s a particularly challenging moment, or an entire stage of development. Colicky babies will stop crying. Mothers won’t smell like sour milk forever. Toddlers outgrow their tantrums and preschoolers eventually master toilet training. No matter how difficult the hour, day, or even month may be, it helps to know that it will pass. I’m going to survive this next stage of parenthood—and so will you!
Rachel Dunstan Muller is a local children’s author, and the mother of four...soon to be five. You can find her novels at the library.