Written by: Ranjani Rao Edited by: Clarissa Lilananda Design & Illustrations by: Srashti Khandelwal
When my daughter was little, there was a joke that I particularly liked. It went something like this.
Child: Mom, how come you’re so smart? You know so many things.
Mom: That’s because I graduated from mommy school.
Child: And Dad? Did he graduate too?
Mom: No. That’s how he became a dad :)
While the joke seems to enforce gender stereotypes, I found the mother’s tongue-in-cheek response funny. Through a few selective words it had exposed a universal truth that I could immediately recognise and identify with.
When a couple decides to expand their family by welcoming a little one, who takes up all their time and energy, the decision has a much greater implication on the mother. Whether you give birth, adopt, or embrace a step-child as your own, for mothers this means an expansion of one’s self. Not just her physical self, but also of her mental and emotional faculties.
All mothers are alumni of the ‘mom-school’ of life, whether or not they were aware of the rigors of the curriculum they were signing up for.
Here are ten lessons that I learnt from my mothering journey:
1. Do Not Drown in the Demands of a Newborn
The first few months of a baby’s life are the most demanding. It seems impossible that a tiny baby would need so many things materially – bottles and formula, clothes and diapers, car seats and bassinets. As if that was not enough, a baby still manages to wreak so much havoc. Hormonal ups and downs, sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, all of which may lead to debilitating self-doubts, anxiety and postpartum depression – are some of the after-effects of caring for a newborn.
It helps to have a support system. It pays to be sensible. It is important to practise self-care.
“Sleep when the baby sleeps!”, I remember my mother admonishing me in the first few weeks. Although tempted to do laundry and sterilise bottles, her gentle but firm reminder to rest (along with her kind support) allowed me to function in a semi-human state.
2. Learn to Prioritise
Once a baby arrives, not only does the to-do list expand, so does the buy list. The number of hours in the day remain the same, but the demands on your time increase. Finding a way to organise the tasks at hand (thousands of photos of your sleeping baby) while ensuring important ones (like immunisation schedules) don’t fall off the list is a good skill to acquire early on. Use a planner, write on a calendar, or set a reminder on your phone to jog your memory.
3. Don’t Try to Become a Superhero
Mother knows best. However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that only a mother understands her child. While it may be partially true (a mother may be more attuned to her child and vice versa), this sentiment can be self-serving. And in some cases, self-sabotaging. In trying to do it all, we often miss the point that babies come programmed to survive. All we have to do is take cues from them. Most of what babies need can be tackled through teamwork and trust. Family members, helpers, daycare centres, babysitters. There are many people who may know better, or can be trained to take over tasks of not just caregiving but also engaging and entertaining your child. Being a superhero is tiring. Learn to delegate.
4. Don’t Let Memorable Moments Slip
One sunny afternoon while heading out for an errand, my toddler daughter stopped to watch a snail. I was impatient to get on with my list, but her insistence on ensuring the snail walked safely into the grass made me stop and take the time to watch this little spectacle. It's been over two decades since that episode. I don’t remember the errand but I do remember the errant snail and the lesson it taught me.
Life will always make demands on you but do stop – to write, to go on a picnic, to create a scrapbook to document those special moments that make the mundane ones memorable.
5. Find the Humour in Your Life
Nothing makes things more bearable than a little bit of humour. Yes, there’s nothing funny about showing up at work with a bit of drool on your blouse or baby food in your hair. But you know what? It’s just a phase – for both your baby and for yourself. Soon you will be nostalgic for the ‘good old days’, even as your child masters new skills and makes you proud.
When my daughter clung to my pants tightly on the first day of preschool and begged me not to leave her there, I felt terribly guilty all day. A coworker told me to enjoy this stage, because her teenage sons didn’t want to be seen anywhere near their parents. Her advice came across a little cold then, but eventually discovered the truth in her words. Remember to smile now, when you feel that intense tug at your heartstrings. And later, when everything changes.
6. Don’t Be a Control Freak
Important meeting? Long-awaited job interview? VIP visitor?
Conveniently, these are the days that children choose to fall sick, get injured, or have a can’t-miss school event. Some activities may be pre-planned, but illness and injuries never come with a prior warning.
My daughter contracted chicken pox at a time that was beyond inconvenient. There wasn’t anything to worry about – it was a common childhood disease after all. She would get over it in due course and also build long-term immunity – I knew all that. But I had a super busy week at work where my presence was required. I could not delegate the work nor her care. And I certainly could not be present at two places at once.
For parents who like predictability and control, the ambiguity of daily life while raising children can either be a frustrating thing, or a great learning experience. Things may not go as planned, but you have to learn to be okay with that. Who knows? It may turn out to be more interesting.
7. Learn to Detach
What can be more binding than giving birth? A child enters the world, having spent the previous months in the exclusive company of their mother. The biological bond is formed long before they set eyes on each other. Of course mothers love their children to distraction. It may sound like an oxymoron, but the lesson here is that – learning to care for your child and learning to let go, are equally important.
Like they say, if you love something, let it go. Both physically and metaphorically, your child will tug at your bond and demand freedom. And if you do it right, both you and your child will be better off.
8. Buy Yourself Flowers
The rewards of motherhood are not just the chocolates and cards on Mother’s Day. It is also the smiles and cuddles, the tight embrace of many goodnights and the small half-smile that follows a tearful meltdown. There are times when you want to be acknowledged, to be celebrated, to be seen. It may not always happen. Don’t despair.
Cheer up by buying yourself a bouquet of your favourite flowers. Put it in a vase where you can see them all day. And don’t hesitate to pat yourself on the back each time a job is well done. Not just for mothering, but for putting yourself high on your priority list.
9. Put Some Space Between Yourself and Your Child
Plants need sunlight and water to grow. But they also need their space, in order to flourish. While it may be tempting to smother your child with your exclusive attention, they may do better with space and time for imaginary play, either alone or with other children. A breather is what both mother and child need – to expand in other directions temporarily, before approaching each other once again, with newfound excitement and anticipation.
I am grateful to many people who cared and influenced my children because they became more interesting as they grew up, simply because they were not miniature versions of me.
10. Forgive Yourself
Wanting the best for your child is natural. And wanting to be the best parent for your child is also natural. But life is unpredictable and sometimes the best intentions fall by the wayside as you delicately balance all your myriad responsibilities. It’s easy to be hard on yourself for missing a key milestone or arriving late for a performance. While it hurts to let your child down, it is also important to learn to forgive yourself when you have tried your best. Just as you did your best in school or at that important project at work, sometimes everything doesn’t land as perfectly as you would have wished.
Your children will learn to do the same – try their best and accept the times when life detours from the best-laid plans. And perhaps, even thank you for it.
As I approach the day when my older child leaves the nest and the younger one gets ready for university, I know I have fallen short in many ways. With or without my knowledge and despite my best intentions, I have made mistakes, spoken harsh words and made unreasonable demands. My hope is that they are not scarred for life. My wish is that they will see me for what I am, a bundle of good wishes and contradictions, fierce in my devotion to them, but pragmatic as a parent, a proponent of tough love but a supporter and cheerleader for life.
The hardest lesson for me to learn and for them to accept is that mothers are also human. And to be human means to fall, to fail, to stumble and also to strive. I have done all that as a mother.
As Carl Jung said – “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”
Give your best to your child, but also remain true to yourself. Your children deserve nothing less. Your life does not stop once you become a parent.
Always remember, the best gift you can give your child is to be a happy and content parent.