I was 14 years old when my little brother was born. I was super excited from the beginning and we instantly had a special connection – especially in the first years when I was quite invested in his caregiving, as my father and his wife both worked. They also felt like it was time for me to take some responsibility in the family. So at least once a week I picked him up from kindergarten and spent the entire afternoon with him, not to talk of the countless evenings and weekends I babysat him.
Although I loved him very much, it was sometimes hard. There were afternoons where I wished for nothing more than to be able to hang out with my friends after school and not have to rush across town to pick him up on time. There were days when I really had to force myself to mash up his bananas (his favorite dish while I hate no food more than bananas) or change his diaper when I much rather would have read a book or watched TV.
But now that I’m a mother I’m actually very thankful for all the childcare experience I gained. And quite frankly, my daughter should thank him forever, because having cared for him made me a much more confident parent and saved her a lot of trouble.
For many first time parents having a child can be quite a shock. It’s not as easy and rosy as it’s often described. Suddenly the house looks like a dump, you can’t remember when you last showered, and eight-hour sleep is a mere dream.
And then there’s more. Mommy shaming, dealing with other parents, insecurities, fears – many parents feel they were not really prepared for all this.
There were still lots of surprises for me as a parent, but at least I felt like I kind of knew what was coming my way.
As for mommy shaming and getting judged by strangers, I was shocked by how many times people assumed I was my younger brother’s mother. Try being 16 and boarding a bus with a screaming and kicking toddler in the one arm, pulling a heavy stroller loaded with groceries in the other. I got everything from strange looks to people actually telling me that I brought this on myself for becoming a mother at such a young age.
In the first instances this happened I was shocked, but quickly I started seeing the comical side of it. Also, it didn’t hurt me so much because I felt like I actually had the right to be overstrained every once in a while. Thanks to this, when I became a mother, I was able to tell the couple who told me I was suffocating my daughter in her wraparound baby carrier to mind their own business. I felt empowered to put her into daycare at the age of one without listening to the people who told me this was irresponsible. I had a thicker skin to thanks to my experiences toting my brother around all those years ago.
My brother also taught me to trust a child. He was a wild one, always moving and exploring. Of course I told him to be careful many times and made sure nothing happened to him, but I was a teen myself and didn’t care if he got dirty (it wasn’t me who had to do his laundry after all) or got a little bruise.
I spent a lot of time with him in a gymnastics class for toddlers. It was mainly just a gym with some stations to climb and play with around 20 toddlers and their parents. There I saw for the first time the results of fearful parenting. There were so many parents who did not leave their children alone even for a second, though this was a safe environment and there was an instructor present. Those were the ones who failed to climb the smallest obstacle by themselves, were scared of everything and cried for five minutes when they only stumbled. I think most of the other parents thought I was careless, but I let my brother run free. He was always the first one to climb the highest cabinets, never complained, and had the most fun.
Now I can relate a bit better to the parents who seemed crazy careful to me at the age of 16. When my daughter climbs a tree or jumps down from high stones, I am scared. I am afraid she’ll get hurt or something might happen to her. But I saw firsthand with my brother and his friends where fearful parenting can end up, and what trusting parenting results in. So I try to hold back my, “be careful” and let her decide for herself what she wants to try. Normally she’s right on with her evaluations – because she knows herself very well – and that is how her confidence grows.
I also learned that I don’t always have to be perfect; that I can make mistakes in my caregiving but things will still be okay. I made mistakes and messed up several times, many of those stories still being told and retold at family gatherings. There was the time when I almost broke his toe because I put his shoe on incorrectly. I put a diaper on him wrong-sided, forgot to close the curtains when he slept so that he woke up at 4:30 with the sunrise, and carried him in ways that made his mother cringe sometimes. But he was fine anyway.
So when I had my own daughter, I knew I would not be the perfect mum, because there is no such thing as a perfect human being. I knew I would make mistakes; some funny, some grave, and some even harmful, but that it would still be okay.