About 20 minutes into my first day back at work after my latest maternity leave, a (childless) colleague innocently asked me what "the hardest part was".
"Of parenting??" I managed to sputter back. Yes, she confirmed. Of parenting.
I looked at her silently for a good few seconds. I realized that nobody had ever asked me this question. I am very honest with my friends (both who have kids and who don't) that I find parenting quite challenging. I find it hard on my heart, my body, my mind, my spirit, my everything. I should know this.
I sat there trying to figure out an answer to her question. Some nice short sentence that summed up the tough bits of parenting. I wanted to present it to her wrapped up in a neat little package with an enlightened bow on top. And I couldn't. I lamely said something about sleep deprivation and we moved on to more common ground.
I know what the hardest parts of other aspects of my life are. My job? That's easy - telling people bad news. The CT scan showed a mass. There are no more treatment options, only palliative care. I don't think you should drive anymore because you have dementia. Immediately, swiftly, surely, I know that's the hardest part of being a family doctor. Of being a wife? Finding time to connect with my husband, to be a couple and not just people parenting the same two kids. Of being a parent? Well. I had to think about that one.
When I became a mother for the first time, the instant life change was hard for me. I cried a lot and felt overwhelmed. What I realize in hindsight is that these were growing pains. I was becoming a new person entirely, and growing pains can hurt. I didn't know myself and this scared me. My priorities and ideas of what caused me worry and stress were changing completely. My husband probably wondered where the fun, energetic, and outgoing woman he married went. I wondered that too. I missed my old life at times. I read news stories about horrible things happening to other people's children and felt gutted. What if that was MY kid? This time of transition, where I straddled the line between old life and new, was confusing, painful, challenging, inspiring, and joyful all at the same time. It was also, well, hard.
And sleep deprivation. My answer to my colleague wasn't wrong; I did and DO find this an incredibly hard part of parenting. When I became a mother I didn't expect to sleep all night, but I did expect to be functional. My daughter was a horrible sleeper. At the worst times she was up every 20 minutes, sometimes needing hours to bounce her back to sleep on an exercise ball. All. Night. Long. I would sit on the ball mindlessly bouncing and would imagine my vertebrae crunching together. "I'm shrinking" I would think. "Please sleep now. I'm getting shorter. My back might fall apart." The nights were long and lonely and I felt isolated. There were days where I felt utterly done by 7:18am. I would think "I am going to be the first person in the history of the world who is not going to survive newborn sleep patterns".
My daughter is three now and we are dealing with big emotions. Tantrums because she wanted a washcloth in the bath but NOT A WET ONE. I try to give her a new dry one. She still screams - she wants the FIRST one to be dry. I can't reverse the laws of physics. I constantly wonder if I should let her "win" these little battles or if I should stick to my guns. I wonder if by giving her a new dry washcloth she is mentally sizing me up to be a pushover and when she's 16 she won't listen to me and she will date the wrong person and start doing hard drugs and become a homeless street youth. I somehow go from washcloths to teenage angst in a second. Parenting, for me, is a near constant state of wondering what the "right" way to handle something is. I feel unsure. Unlike in medicine, there is no textbook that I can reference. No list of symptoms that points to a certain diagnosis and treatment. We are all winging it as parents. The incredible love that you have for your kids is the same force that brings you to the brink of madness.
Parenting is also hard because it's the most bittersweet thing your heart will ever go though. I hold my daughter, who no longer looks or feels like a baby and I remember the moment she was born. The doctor saying "it's a ..... girl!" I remember thinking "my life just changed". I felt it. A massive shift. I remember her, so tiny, her small face and bright eyes staring at me. This feels like it happened about 8 seconds ago. "It goes so fast" sounds so trite, but it does. I simultaneously want time to speed up and freeze at the same time. I look forward to when my kids are older for many reasons. But then I lie beside my sleeping six month-old son and he instinctively rolls towards me. He holds my hand as he nurses. I stare at his face and think, "Please don't grow up. Please. This moment needs to last for the rest of my life." My heart wants two things at once and I suspect it always will. I sometimes long for time alone but I am terrified of ultimately getting it. I think about how I casually told my parents I had applied for a Masters program at a school across the country, and how I left for three whole years. How on earth will I be able to smile and wave once my own kids spread their wings and fly away?
Finally, let’s not forget the steady stream of a grab bag of random worries. I am breastfeeding and pumping for my son. If my pumping output tanks, I stress (and make lactation cookies in an act of desperation). I worry he won't take a bottle or that he WILL take a bottle and love it and reject the breast. I worry I've gone back to work too soon. I fret about money and about providing them with a fun, active, interesting life. Always, I worry about them getting hurt or sick. I worry when I'm running late at work that the baby will be screaming and I won't have time to see my daughter before she goes to bed. I worry that she will feel unimportant. I remind her daily - "You are the most important person to me. You come first". But when I don't make it home or I'm on call and not around, I worry about missed time. And like most parents I have moments where I just worry that I'm just not doing a good job. My worries are not unique. But they are still a hard part of parenting.
So, my sweet, kind, colleague. Here we are. This is the answer I couldn't give you in two minutes before I saw my first patient, about an hour after I had left my kids at home with their father, waving at me as I drove away. The winds of change seem to blow steadily when you are a parent. Sometimes I feel like the best I can do is take cover. It was difficult to put into words what is hard about parenting even after thinking about it for days. I guess that just proves that parenting is a wonderful, completely confusing, infuriating and mysterious adventure. The hard parts sometimes get twisted and turned and their edges smoothed until we can't tell the difference between them and the best parts. Parenting isn't broken into hard moments and easy moments. There are only moments, which I have accepted to be fleeting.
After all this thinking and all these words, here's what I would tell you now: It's all hard, every single bit of it. And so incredibly worth it.
Guest post written by Erin Beattie. Erin is a Canadian mama, doctor, and wife who cringes when she hears people tell new mothers to "enjoy every moment". Her kids are her greatest adventure and she is convinced that parenting is the most mysterious and beautiful thing she will ever do.
Photo by Kate De La Rosa.