It is an epic understatement to say that becoming a parent changes your life.
Take me, a former perfectionist, as an example. I had an easy Midwestern childhood with generous, permissive, happily married parents. They led me to believe that it was possible to accomplish any goal with a mix of personality, will, and hard work. I might not have believed it if it hadn’t always worked so well.
As a toddler I charmed my way into an exclusive preschool, or so the story goes, by deflecting a compliment given by the interviewer about the handmade garment on my head, “It’s not a hat,” I said condescendingly, “It’s a hood.”
As a young child, I colored inside the lines, spending eons on intricate art projects. I played skeeball with insane focus at Chuck E. Cheese for hours on end, accumulating long ribbons of tickets, like whale intestines, until my chaperone dragged me out.
In high school, I ran the mile much faster than my more athletic classmates. “Are you sure you did four laps?” I remember the P.E. teacher asking me incredulously after a timed run. I thrived on praise and did whatever it took to receive it.
I won awards and stayed up late perfecting papers. I graduated at the top of my class from multiple Ivy League schools. I got every teaching job for which I applied, and threw my heart and soul into the work. My Socratic style of teaching was profiled in an NPR piece; my students got a shout out in the San Francisco Chronicle for their devotion to reading.
When my husband and I started to think about growing our family, I acknowledged that babies were a lot of work, but a lot of work was my modus operandi. I felt sorry for people who shied away from a lot of work. I recalled a sepia photo of my mom in a long Mexican dress standing in a vegetable garden smiling at me, her firstborn. I could do that. I could wear flowing clothes and appreciate nature with a baby, no problem.
I thought that since I was a stellar student, and then a star teacher, that I would naturally excel at parenting. Perhaps I would even be a perfect parent. Boy, was I wrong. More than wrong: delusional.
Milo arrived on his due date. And, after a smooth labor and delivery, I hemorrhaged, then fainted. No amount of creativity or hard work could get Milo to stop screaming as though he were being stabbed every time I strapped him into a car seat or stroller. Milo screamed his head off in the car, on airplanes, throughout mommy and me music time, swim classes, and yoga. Milo bit me and whacked nearby babies on the head with xylophone sticks.
I trained myself away from my night owl tendencies and learned to be a functional human in the early morning – I still despise sunrises – but that didn’t mean Milo was pleasant at 4:30 a.m. In fact, he was quite rude.
I walked the empty streets of Berkeley and cried as he cried. All the new mommies I knew struggled mightily with their charges, but they agreed that Milo was pretty awful. He was also strikingly, eerily beautiful, with silky golden hair, an impossibly cute button nose, and eyes the color of an alpine lake.
Everywhere I went people stared at him. Milo’s extreme cuteness contrasted sharply with his intense temperament. Despite my history of reasonable mental health, I regularly fought back the urge to cut and run or even “accidentally” toss Milo out the window.
Once I shared my dark thoughts with a mama friend and she looked at me blankly. I spoke with Milo’s pediatrician and she referred me to a web survey that revealed a “temperament mismatch” between my offspring and me. No surprise there.
We thought our baby would tag along on all the activities that defined and sustained us – rock climbing with Mike, attending poetry slams with me. I did bring Milo to a poetry slam once and he seemed to like it well enough, even dozing off, but every time the audience clapped and cheered, he’d wake up and be scared.
I went back to work as a classroom teacher when Milo was 14 months old, right around the time I got pregnant again. I completely forget those first months. We shared an amazing nanny – Dekyi – with another family. Dekyi fed Milo homemade lentils and handed him off to me sleepy and content.
I gave her nearly every dollar I earned, but I felt a renewed sense of freedom and purpose. In the classroom setting, parents and students lavished me with positive feedback. At home, Milo writhed and spat, and hit me with bath toys.
Ruby was born just before Milo began preschool. The transition from one child to two, and from working out of the house to staying home again, completely redefined difficult. Ruby’s disposition proved sunnier than her older brother’s, but she was still a newborn.
When I picked Milo up at lunchtime, he was so grumpy and exhausted that he would fly into a rage and run away from me into active driveways and crowds of shocked retirees. With newborn Ruby strapped to my chest, I literally could not catch him.
I cried to my husband, Mike, that I could not ensure my children’s safety, and he looked up from playing his guitar for a beat, trying to understand. I decided that I would rather employ childcare professionals to chase my beloved demons than do it myself. Even though it meant I would bring less than zero dollars of income to our family, I would rather spend the majority of my time with 24 children, all belonging to other people, than with two of my own.
My children are more unlike me than I ever imagined. They do not care about pleasing me, or anyone, for that matter. They talk back. With horrible aim, they spit and punch. They grow restless so damn quickly! They learned to read so slowly! They can never find their shoes.
But my kids have taught me how unrealistic my expectations were, and how frivolous my fears. I no longer concern myself with being perfect. I settle for being sane.