I experienced many challenging days as a new mother. I spilled my guts in a previous post about how difficult it was for me to move to a new country when my first daughter was just 3 months old. I didn’t speak the language, I was very far from my family, and frankly, I had no idea what I was doing.
It was amid this perfect storm that I experienced the most repugnant 10 minutes of my life as a parent. It also was the day I was blessed with the best parenting advice I have ever received in my five years of being a mother.
My daughter and I had flown back to the states to visit my family at Christmas when she was 6 months old. It was the best Christmas gift I could have hoped for, and we had an amazing visit with my family. The trip took us 24 to 30 hours door-to-door with driving to the airport, check-in, customs, flights, layovers and baggage claim. I had never dreaded getting on a plane so much as that trip back to Italy.
I forced myself onto the plane with tears stinging my eyes and a baby strapped to my chest. I somehow endured the arduous journey knowing that I would not get to see my family again for another six months. It is a poorly kept secret that I am a terrible human being if I do not get adequate sleep. The extremely long and depressing trip combined with the fact that my daughter had her days and nights mixed up because of the seven hour time change between St. Louis and Italy left me utterly exhausted.
On the morning we returned, I had to go to the grocery story because we had NO food. Inevitably, some old Italian lady told me my daughter was cold. Little old Italian ladies literally cannot help themselves from saving your poor freezing child from the 70 degree weather.
In short, I was tired, hungry and annoyed, which set the stage for a story few can even listen to without barfing in their mouth.
We got home and I unpacked the groceries. The unmistakable smell of infant poop filled the air. My daughter was still nursing, and she had bestowed on me one of those epic, breastmilk poops that we all know too well. You know, the kind that somehow ends up on both of their socks and in their hair? And on both of your socks and in your hair?
I was changing her on the floor of my living room and did not realize I would need an entire package of wipes to deal with the Stage 5 Code Brown in this tiny person’s diaper. I stripped her down and cleaned her up the best I could with the three wipes that I had access to and ran upstairs for a baby towel and more wipes. It was literally less than 30 seconds from the time I sprang up from the floor to the time I returned to The Scene.
In the interim, my daughter had rolled over and was nude on her hands and knees in the crawling position. My 5 pound poodle had bellied up to her full diaper and was chowing down like it was her last meal. My 20 pound poodle was licking my daughter’s naked butt with the same determination I exhibit when attacking a spatula full of brownie batter. Pun intended. The rest is a bit hazy, but knowing myself for over “29″ years, I am fairly certain I freaked out. I somehow pulled it together, threw the dogs outside and furiously cleaned everything up before rocking back and forth in the fetal position in the corner for ten minutes.
Then I collected myself and gave my daughter a bath while sobbing. It was just so pathetic. I calmed down after determining that my daughter most likely wouldn’t remember enough of the event to recount to her future therapist. I let the dogs back in and idiotically believed “it” was over while I sat on the sanitized floor next to my daughter playing with those Fisher Price stacking rings. Then, my 5 pound dog started puking baby poop vomit all over the toys.
This actually happened. I still get queasy when I see those rainbow rings.
Again, my memory is spotty, but after losing my mind yet again, I decided to call my friend Ashley to help me calm down. We had been stationed with her and her lovely family at our previous base, and she was one of my only friends at that point in our Italian tour. I had seen her effortlessly settle a dispute between her children in which they accused each other of losing a dog leash. She simply said to both of them, “Were you playing with it and are you willing to be helpful?”
Huh? Me, I would have told them to find that GD leash or they’d be in big trouble (consciously knowing full-well that I had no idea what being in trouble even means).
In my mind, my Dear Friend is able to train forest creatures to forage for wild ramps and expensive mushrooms and then make a free form tart out of the wheat she has grown in her garden with homemade compost. This seems like an exaggeration, but most of this is an accurate description of her. Looking back, she was the one person who kept me from giving up on breastfeeding with her honesty just months before. She told me it sucks, a lot, especially the first month. She was the only one would would admit to me that it wasn’t as magical as everyone made it seem.
She listened to my story sympathetically. She did everything in her power not to laugh at me.
Then, she said it. “You’ve got to lower your expectations. You’ll be a lot happier.”
I don’t have many instances of true clarity in my life, but I can look back and know it was life-changing for me. She explained that motherhood isn’t what she, or anyone for that matter, initially envisions it to be. To hear one of the few people I know who truly has it together say those words lifted a huge weight from my overloaded shoulders.
My expectations of parenthood, of my daughter, and especially of myself were simply unreasonable. Life is messy, and life with kids is downright disgusting (as evidenced by the previously story). I fought so hard to conform reality to my naively conceived expectation of motherhood and not the other way around. It was so liberating to be given permission to let it go.
This advice has been infinitely helpful in so many areas of my life.
Going to Disney? Lower your expectations.
You will get scores of perfectly deletable photos of your sweaty family in front of the castle where one kid is vaguely looking at the camera and one is crying because you didn’t let her eat seven churros.
Got a gift you know your mom will love?
Lower your expectations. She will ask, “Where do you even buy something like this?”
Ask your husband to bring home “not cheap” hairspray? Lower your expectations, and don’t be surprised when you are plastering on the Alberto V05. You’ll be a lot happier.
I think I could have easily misinterpreted the advice to mean I should lower my standards or just give up; that I should reassess the kind of mother I wanted to be.
But, I got it.
I got that allowing myself to take the first step into the reality of being a parent was exactly what I needed in that crappy moment. I got that breastfeeding, for me, wasn’t the most organic connection you could have with your baby while your nipples bled every time she put her freakishly strong mouth anywhere near them. I got that the certainty of a clean house, or a baby who doesn’t have blowouts or dogs that don’t eat poop just isn’t existent, and to expect that is a fool’s errand.
So, when anyone asks me for parenting advice in perfectly calm moments, I say nothing.
When the poop hits the dog’s mouth, I relay my Dear Friend’s words, “Lower your expectations. You’ll be a lot happier.”