Advice for New Parents: Expect the Unexpected When You Are Expecting
What No One Tells You About Being a New Parent
When I look back at the first six weeks of my (now almost 2 year old) baby's life, I mostly think about all the things I didn't know. I was given so much wonderful advice, but there was also so much that no one told me. Perhaps even if someone had told me these things, I wouldn't have really understood them anyway. But there's always the chance that if I write these things down, they might be helpful to others. As you'll see, the general point is - despite books telling you otherwise - you have no idea what to expect.
#1 You Have No Idea What Kind of a Labor You Will Have
I love the concept of a birth plan, and I love feeling empowered about choosing the kind of birth you want to have, but the reality is, you do not make the final decision about what kind of a labor you will have. You do decide whether you will feel positively or negatively about the whole thing, and how you will frame it in your mind, but the final details are not up to you.
I planned and prepared to have a natural child birth, and ended up with a c-section after three days of labor. Fortunately, I had also been practicing feeling non-attached to any outcome (other than having a healthy baby), and I felt very positive about my birth experience. However, this meant that the first few weeks looked different than I expected - I was much more reliant on my husband and others to do things for me (even the simple things, like slide down in bed). This ended up being actually a very good thing for us - my husband was scared to even hold our friends' babies before we had ours, but with me lying on the table after the surgery, he was the first one to hold our son, and to go with him to the nursery, and do much of the primary care in the first few days.
My point is - I think in general our society seems to preach (from various points of view) that you have the final say on whether you want to deliver naturally, with medication, or by c-section. To a certain extent, and in many cases, people have the exact type of birth they planned to. But people don't tell you that really you have no idea how it will be. I think that knowing and accepting that can prepare you to make the most of the first six weeks with your infant, and not be so hung up on your birth experience (not that you shouldn't process it!) - whether it did or didn't go as you planned - that you miss out on the incredible bonding time with your newborn baby.
#2 You Don't Know What Kind of a Baby You Will Have
It sounds so obvious, but so many books and people act as though there are "one size fits all" techniques for caring for newborn babies. We watched the Happiest Baby on the Block video (a funny and generally worthwhile viewing), but it should have come with a disclaimer - "your baby may or may not like the 5 S's and you have no idea which of them your baby will like". The book and video make it seem like you just swing, shush, and do all of the other steps (can you tell the other ones didn't work for us?) and all of a sudden your baby is blissful and/or sound asleep. Not so. Ours did not go for the swaddle or a pacifier (sucking), and it sort of took us by surprise. "But the book said! And we even practiced swaddling a baby doll!"
The reality is, the first six weeks (and beyond) are a time for you to learn what works for your particular baby and your particular family. I still think it can be very useful to read books and gather advice about what might work, with might being the operative word. And knowing that you can't expect every piece of advice or every technique to work for your baby might help ease some of the anxiety when something doesn't work. For this reason, I was a big fan of books that were phrased in terms of things to try, not in terms of "do this or your baby will be ruined for life." I also felt the same way about friends and family members - it was much nicer to get suggestions, without being told what to do. It still amazes me how different every baby is, and I have no idea why anyone would think that they would know what will work for someone else's baby. That said, it's nice to know what other people tried, because sometimes you just want to try something new!
#3 Your Friends Will Act Differently Than You Expect
I think it's safe to say that everyone tells you that having a new baby will change your relationship with your spouse/partner. And they are right. But what about all the other relationships in your life? No one told me, and I didn't really expect, that my relationships with my friends would change in unexpected ways.
And the changes were things I couldn't have predicted. Some friends were incredibly supportive and helpful in ways I never would have expected. Women I hadn't been particularly close with came over with food and extra burp cloths (how did they know?!) and helped ease my anxieties with stories of mistakes they'd made, and how it had all been ok. Other friends became more distant. This is a whole other topic that merits a much longer discussion, but I think it's important to at least have an awareness that your relationships with your friends may shift, and to be open to that possibility.
#4 You Have No Way of Predicting How You Will Feel About Having a New Baby
I had some people tell me I would be elated after having my baby. Others told me I would fall into postpartum depression. Again, the reality of it is - you have no idea what kinds of emotions you will be feeling in those early weeks of your infant's life. One thing I can guarantee - having a newborn is unlike anything you've ever experienced. You just don't know if it will be more like a tornado you've never experienced, or more like the greatest chocolate cake you've never experienced. I've had friends with both experiences, and honestly most people I know have had some crazy mix of both, and everything in between.
Personally, I was very aware of the possibility of postpartum depression, and I think that was tremendously helpful. I didn't end up experiencing it, but just knowing it might happen helped me and my husband be prepared and I think it would have been much less traumatic if I had. Any time there is an expectation about how you should or shouldn't feel, it sets you up for feeling like something is wrong if you don't feel that way. If you can go into the first six weeks with your newborn baby knowing that you may feel a range of emotions, I think that can make each one less scary, and can help you be in the moment.
Expecting the Unexpected Can Free You to Enjoy the Moment
Looking back, I think if I had shed some of my expectations about having a newborn, and what it was all "supposed" to be like, I think I could have spent even more time being in the moment, enjoying my baby. And by enjoying, I do mean experiencing the full range of emotions - sometimes it's hard, frustrating, scary, sad, and the list goes on and on. But in an odd way, if you aren't putting a thousand pounds worth of expectations on top of your genuine emotions, you can just be free to feel the full range and enjoy the experience for what it is.