Raising a child is full of surprises. No matter how many books, parenting forums, and articles you read, the truth is that nothing can completely prepare you for it. After become a parent, though, I now have the gift of hindsight, so here’s what I would say if I could go back to before my daughter was born and tell myself what I didn’t know I would experience. If you’re a new parent, maybe my message from the future can benefit you, too.
Making a baby isn’t as easy as it sounds
Some people are able to reproduce as easily as bunnies, but for others, that’s not always the case. Before I got pregnant, I naively thought that whenever I would want to have a child, my husband and I would just have sex every day for a month and bam, that would be it. The human body doesn’t really work that way.
So if you’re thinking of having a child someday and want to plan the pregnancy for a certain time period, consider giving yourself some extra time and try not to stress out about the whole thing. A great book on this subject is Taking Charge of Your Fertility. (It’s also awesome even if you’re not thinking of getting pregnant but just want to know more about the female body.)
The first few months can be torture
I sometimes think babies’ cries are so grating, their sleep so erratic, and breastfeeding so painful just to harden parents. If you can survive the first few months of Baby Boot Camp without losing your mind, you can survive anything. Because, really, the first few months are hell if you enjoy sleeping, showering, and functioning well.
Others told me it was hard, as I’m telling you now, but it’s impossible to truly convey just what it’s like to wake up at night every two hours for several months, or try to calm a baby who’s screaming inconsolably, or deal with your body being three sizes bigger than it used to be, or struggle with not feeling like yourself for months or even years.
The other thing to know, though, is that as bad as it gets, you’ll get through it. (Just don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if you suffer from post-partum depression.) There are blissful, amazing moments during that period too, and, after enough time passes, you might even think back wistfully on this period and even be crazy enough to go through that torture again.
You will sorely miss sleep
Even past the infant and toddler stages, you might have sleep issues. Middle-of-the-night nightmares, kids sleeping between you and your significant other, difficulty getting them up in time for school, and so on.
I think it gets better (my daughter is seven and still climbs into our bed at night), but a word to the wise: Don’t start a sleep or nighttime habit (like letting your kid into your bed in the middle of the night) you don’t want to continue until your child is in college.
You don’t need a lot of baby stuff
Strollers, car seats, playpens, swings, bouncy chairs, play mats, sleep hammocks, teething rings, bibs, burp cloths…babies seemingly need a ton of accoutrements. Let me save you a lot of money: You don’t need even half of those things.
Many new parents fear their babies will get bored or will need constant stimulation to develop their baby brains, but the truth is that infants pretty much just sleep, wake up, cry to be fed, and then fall asleep after being fed. You don’t need multiple, endless ways to occupy them even when they’ve started toddling, because everything is entertaining to a young child. (It’s also why baby-proofing is important.)
Also, kids tend to discard even new toys quicker than it took you to look for and buy them. I have a garage full of baby distractions and stuffed animals (the bane of my existence) just waiting for garage sale season. To this day, I’m thinking: Why didn’t I just buy blocks or make toys out of toilet paper rolls?
Similarly, I wish I hadn’t bought so many baby clothes — at least new ones. For one thing, family and friends love to gift adorable outfits (who can resist buying tiny shoes, even if the baby can’t stand up?). For another, kids grow like weeds, so some outfits are rarely even worn before they don’t fit.
If I could do it over again, I probably would’ve bought only on-sale or used clothes, enough to last two weeks of laundry. Of course, if your kid gets dirty a lot, you might have to buy more, but wait until you know before hitting up the kids clothing department.
Children rack up a lot of surprise costs
There’s one thing you will need a lot of in the first few years: Diapers. A whole lot of diapers. You know that already, but you’re probably still underestimating how many diapers you’ll end up buying (or washing, if you go the cloth route).
Other expenses will seem to come out of the blue, though, over the course of your child’s life. Music lessons, for example, for a couple of hundred dollars a month, class trip costs, babysitting costs, and even medicine and medical fees can take you by surprise. Perhaps the biggest shocker, though, is the higher-than-college cost of daycare. (It’s like you need to take a second job to pay for the daycare that lets you work your first job.)
So spend less on baby gear and keep in mind these unexpected (or unexpectedly high) costs that really add up.
You can effectively work from home, but only to a point
There are two periods of your children’s lives when working from home with them is a breeze: Before they’re walking (e.g., when they can entertain themselves by discovering their toes) and after they’re old enough to understand that when you’re working from home, you’re really not available. If your kid is good at entertaining themselves, working from home can feel easy, but it might still give you pangs of guilt when your attention is divided. It’s hard for parents to say “no, I’m busy now” several times a day.
So even if you’re fortunate enough to be able work from home, you should plan on getting childcare help if you can once your child is old enough to demand your complete and undivided attention.
Don’t worry if your child isn’t reaching development milestones
My daughter didn’t start walking until she was thirteen months old — about the time all the baby books said I would need to consult a doctor if she wasn’t yet. So of course I stressed about it. She was also in pull-up diapers longer than other kids in her daycare (a stranger even once remarked to me in a public bathroom that she was too old for diapers, because rude parenting advice from strangers is also a thing you’ll have to get used to). So of course I stressed about that, too.
Looking back, though, it’s important to accept that each kid develops on their own timeframe. All that time my daughter wasn’t learning how to walk, she was using her energy to learn how to speak. So try not to rush getting your child to talk, walk, run, or read. They grow up all too fast anyway.
You can’t take too many pictures
In the first few years, you’re probably going to constantly take pictures and videos. Sadly, that falls off as you and they get older. You will never regret having too many pictures of your rapidly growing child, though, so it’s something to watch out for.
It also helps if you develop a habit of organising your photos and videos soon after you take them. Otherwise, you’ll have a mess of images and videos that are as daunting as the thousands of emails you have in your inbox.
Most important, though: Back up your photos and videos, both locally and offsite. Those files are some of the most precious ones to save (and ones you can never recreate).
Going out anywhere won’t be the same
Once you become a parent, time shifts. What used to be a five-minute run to the store will now take forty-five minutes to account for bundling, dawdling, snack-packing, car-seat-fiddling, and other extra steps.
Eating out is also a whole new experience. There are Cheerios on the floor to feel guilty about, crayons to keep from rolling off the table, and angry-looking fellow diners (at least in your mind) to deal with. And if you manage to get out for a date night alone with your significant other, you’ll probably spend all of the time talking or worrying about your child.
You yourself won’t be the same
Parenting changes you. I expected this, but I didn’t expect just how radically it would. It’s not like you turn into your mum or dad overnight, but your values, perspective, and habits get realigned to one single creature: your child (or your children, if you have more than one).
It also means:
- Your habits might change for the better. You’ll think more about the nutritional value of your food, driving safely, spending money more wisely, living longer, and exemplifying good ethics.
- Poop will no longer be taboo (if it ever was). Oh, the poop stories you will be able to tell when you’re a parent.
- Your relationship with your partner will change. You can’t really know until it happens whether it’s for better or worse, but parenting changes the other person too and how you look at him/her.
- You may have to part with previous entertainment choices. (Play video games and watch TV? Sure, but now it’s Talking Tom and My Little Pony.)
- You will never take free time for granted again.
- You might actually have more fun and become more creative. (Inventing dog costumes, drawing on the footpath, and trying new ways to make peas appealing weren’t on my to-do list before.)
- You will likely experience a love and a bond that you never could’ve imagined.
Finally, just one last thing to know: None of the negative stuff on this list — as terrible and messy as they sound — will really bother you in the long run. You’ll discover many new things about yourself as a parent — things that make you stronger, and more vulnerable in a sense, too.
Author Elizabeth Stone made this terribly true observation: “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.” I think most parents would agree that it’s worth it. Just think of this as mental preparation.
This story was originally published in March 2013 and was updated on April 26, 2021 with new images and to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.