If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that we have a common goal: to be the best mothers we can be to our little ones. It’s an overwhelming task, particularly when everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s right and what’s wrong.
My best friend is very vocally antivaccine, but my MD sister-in-law swears by them. My sister gave my nieces a bottle, but I breastfed my babies exclusively. So who’s right? Who’s wrong? How do I know if what I’m doing is best for my baby or if I’m making thousands of little (and some potentially very big) mistakes?
Unfortunately, there aren’t clear answers. My mom still ponders these questions and her kids are all well into their 30s. (Although she points out that laboring mothers were allowed to smoke in the hospital when she delivered my oldest sister, so sometimes the answers to our “Is this best for the baby?” queries are actually cut-and-dried.)
From the moment we click the car seat into the vehicle at the end of our hospital stay, we’re on our own—and we’re going to do some things perfectly and other things horrendously. I can’t tell you the secrets of successful child-rearing because all babies and parents are different. What works for me might not work for you. However, I do have some experience under my belt that allows me to offer some friendly recommendations. To guide you as you find your own way down the path of parenting, I present you with the do’s and don’ts of motherhood.
Do know that motherhood is full of hard knocks.
You know when the easiest time to feel like you know everything about parenting is? Any time before you actually become a parent. Prior to that, it’s simple to confidently declare what you will always or never do. You’re not being cocky or delusional. You actually believe that you are going to be in control when the baby arrives. But—how do I drop this bomb gently? You won’t.
It doesn’t matter how much you prepare or plan, things will not go exactly the way you assume they will. Go ahead and be ready for the exact opposite of what your parenting plans entail. If you swear up and down that you will never co-sleep, Murphy’s law dictates that you’ll be having a conversation with your partner in two to five years about how the hell to get that child out of your bed (because her sleeping sideways was much less bothersome when she was only 18 inches long). The universe will take your plans and drop them at your feet, shattered and scattered.
Sometimes, it’s going to be hard to accept these surprises. You might even shed some tears. Which is why you should always try to keep this next bit of advice at the front of your mind …
Don’t take everything too seriously.
All those hard knocks headed your way mean you’ve got to learn to roll with the punches, mamas. It’s essential to your survival. Unfortunately, the cards are kind of stacked against you because new moms are tired and overwhelmed and—if we’re going to have an honest conversation about this—maybe a little overly sensitive. (It’s not your fault, though. It’s the hormones’.)
Some shake-ups are going to be pretty devastating. If you had your heart set on breastfeeding and it isn’t working out, you can’t laugh that off. It’s a big deal. I get it. You deserve time to mourn that loss.
But for smaller things—say, baby barfing on your last clean shirt right as you’re headed out to a doctor’s appointment or your MIL showing up unannounced to find you still in your pajamas at 3 p.m.—find humor in those moments. Women are always their own worst critics, and everyone is probably judging you a lot less than you think they are. Being a little late, a little disorganized and a whole lot tired is A-OK at this point in the game. It might feel like the worst thing in the world in the moment, but if you have the option, it’s always better to laugh than to cry.
Do trust your instincts.
You may feel underqualified in the beginning, but you aren’t. You were literally designed to be your baby’s mama. If something seems off to you, it probably is. Go with your gut.
You will get so much advice as a new mom. Some of it will be helpful. Some of it will be completely worthless. Weed through it with your instincts. Some sources (e.g., your pediatrician) will offer lifesaving tips and assurances. Other sources (e.g., the grocery clerk) may spout old wives’ tales that aren’t entirely—or even partially—accurate.
Do keep this in mind, though: Good advice sometimes comes from the most unexpected places. Your Aunt Glenda might be a wee bit on the unusual side, but that doesn’t automatically mean her all-natural method of easing teething pain is bunk. It could work like a charm. So listen, digest and decide—and trust that you know what’s best for your baby. No one is more qualified to make decisions on her behalf.
Don’t beat yourself up.
If you have a bad day—and you will—leave it at the door when you head to bed. If everyone is alive, fed and relatively clean, call it a win—and don’t let your fear/regret/ anger monopolize your mood any further.
Some of the best words of wisdom I have ever heard are this: Treat yourself the way you treat others. If your best friend called and confessed that she let her baby cry for 10 minutes in the crib today just so she could sit and have a much-needed coffee break, would you judge her? Probably not. You’d support her and tell her that it’s OK. Her baby is fine and will definitely not hold a grudge—and she was probably able to parent much more effectively after stepping away. The same is true for you. Tell yourself those same reassuring, positive things. The fact that you care whether your baby cries already indicates you’re a good mom, so you’re on the right path. Soldier on.
Do celebrate the little things.
Every once in a while, life is going to grant you a beautiful moment. You’re going to trim baby’s nails for the first time without stressing. You’re going to realize that your milk supply has sorted itself out, and you’re no longer changing your shirt three times a day. Soon, friends, you and your baby are going to sleep for six straight hours—and you will swear you hear angels singing when you wake.
These are all moments worth pausing to rejoice in. They’re small victories, sure, but victories they are. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything that’s going wrong—the laundry pile, PB&J for dinner (again), that persistent diaper rash—but take a few seconds every day to take stock of everything that’s going right. There’s good all around you; you just have to stop and notice it. Look for the bright side, feel your spirit lift, and know that your positivity is affecting your baby, too.
Don’t apologize for the way you parent.
You won’t mother like everyone else or always make the same decisions they do—and you shouldn’t. Not all moms are the same; not all kids are the same. (In fact, there’s a good chance you won’t even parent all your children the exact same way. They can be finicky little creatures who don’t always respond to the same sorts of things, so you get to figure it out anew and tweak your technique every time.)
If you run into a group of mamas giving you the stink-eye as you mix up baby’s bottle for a midday snack, don’t waste your energy on caring. (Of course, this scenario could easily be reversed—maybe you’re a nursing mama getting stared down by a fellow patron at the bookstore.) Truly, it’s no one’s business why you do things the way you do. As long as your child is safe and cared for, you don’t have to justify your actions. Let others’ judgment roll off your back.
It’s also important to learn to agree to disagree respectfully and considerately. We can all get a little passionate where our kids are concerned, but keep it in check. If you play nicely, generally other people will, too.
Do stay in the picture(s).
In the grand scheme of things, this tidbit of advice might seem like small potatoes, but it’s actually—in my opinion—very important. You see, I held on to a few extra pounds after delivering baby No. 2. I didn’t shower all that often. I didn’t really change out of loungewear … ever. I was not pretty as a picture. And for that reason, I avoided them (pictures) like the plague. I documented every moment of my little guy’s life, but I myself was absent from all the photos because I didn’t want to preserve this less-than-perfect version of myself for years to come.
Then one day the Internet introduced me to Emily Anderson, who started an online movement to get moms in pictures—imperfections and all. “Embrace the camera (#embracethecamera) was founded on the idea that visual memories are important to our loved ones, no matter how we feel we look,” explains Anderson, a mom of six in Dallas. (Find her on Instagram: @theandersoncrew.)
The idea originated from a sad place: “When my mom got really sick, I started noticing how very few photos I had of her,” remarks Anderson. “She was the type of mom of who always hid behind the camera.” Anderson’s mother passed away, but Anderson says, “The few photos I do have [of her], I cherish.”
To ensure her own children never longed for pictures of their mom, Emily began jumping in front of the camera. “A photo can have the power to bring back a really happy memory or moment,” she says. “It’s so important that we put our insecurities aside for our loved ones.” I agree with her: Even though I might see nothing but flaws in my photos, my kids have a very different view. They don’t see jiggly thighs and jagged eyebrows. They just see mom.
“Our children are never going to think, Mom looks really (insert whatever awful adjective you use to describe yourself here),” assures Anderson. “They will love you no matter what.”
That uncomfortable season, when I was slightly overweight and my skin wasn’t at its best and I was so, so tired—that was a beautiful season. It really was. And I want my kids to look back and remember how much I loved them and that I was there with them, in the trenches, every single glorious day. There simply isn’t a better picture to be found than one of a mama loving her babies.
Don’t stress over baby’s development.
All kids do things in their own time, and that can be worrisome for some parents. Kristie Rivers, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who also works with online parenting resource Bundoo, says, “It is easy … to get caught up in the comparison game when you suddenly realize your little angel is not doing what her little friend accomplished two months ago.” This can be compounded when you see a developmental checklist online or at your doctor’s office and realize that your baby hasn’t met all the markers.
But Rivers says, “It’s vitally important for parents to remember these developmental milestones are simply broad guidelines and nothing more. Each and every baby is different, developing at his own pace, on his own terms. There are so many variables to development in those first few months and years.”
I know babies who walked at 9 months and other babies who didn’t take a step until closer to 15 months. According to Rivers, they would all fall within the normal range.
Sometimes, a missed milestone might be a red flag (see below sidebar for details), but as long as you are sticking to your baby’s well-visit schedule, your pediatrician should be able to assuage your fears.
Remember, too, that these early developments don’t usually have lifelong repercussions: Delayed walking doesn’t mean your child doesn’t have a future in the NBA. Trust me, once he starts running (especially away from you in public places), you’ll wonder why you ever worried.
Don’t jump on every bandwagon.
There’s a ton of conflicting information floating around the web and the world, and it can make your job very hard. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. If a friend posts a link to an article claiming that flu vaccines put babies at risk, don’t automatically assume it’s true and cancel your upcoming appointment. Could it be true? Sure. Look into it if you’re concerned. But don’t just immediately think that something is bad (or good) because that’s what everyone else is doing.
Do take time for yourself.
I’ve turned the TV to Disney Junior for 30 minutes before, so I could fold a load of laundry in peace. And I’m happy to report my children are not completely screwed up. In fact, they’re really quite well-adjusted. I’m not advising you to use a screen as a babysitter often, but if you need a break, take a break. A brief timeout during the day can make a big difference in your morale, and things will not fall apart while you’re spending a few minutes alone.
This can be a little more challenging when you have a newborn who can’t necessarily be distracted. But, as Jessica Turner, author of My Fringe Hours: Discovering a More Creative and Fulfilled Life and blogger at TheMomCreative.com, points out, “Parenting a newborn does not give you permission to neglect yourself. It’s important to remember that life is full of seasons, and the new baby season is especially challenging. Give yourself grace as you find a new rhythm.”
Don’t use every second of baby’s naptime tackling chores. Turner reminds (and I concur): “The laundry and dishes can wait.” Either nap yourself—“Your body needs rest”—or spend a little time doing whatever it is that rejuvenates you. Read a book, watch an episode of your favorite show, scroll through Instagram … You do you for just a little bit. If anyone’s earned a short break from the grind, it’s a mom. You do not need to feel guilty for refueling your tank.
Taking time for yourself goes beyond just a daily moment of silence, too. Once you’re comfortable leaving baby with someone else, you’ll benefit highly from the occasional day or night out. Even a solo Target run can feel like liberation. Join a book club, take your sister shopping, plan a date night … just get out of the house. You won’t regret it. As Turner so wisely reminds us: “Remember that your needs matter.”