by Tracy Cutchlow, Author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science
I remember trying to get the real scoop on parenting, good and bad, before I had a baby. “It’s hard,” new parents would say, and then quickly paper over that tiny admission. “But of course I wouldn’t trade it for anything!”
It sounded suspicious to me. Even so, once I had a baby, I followed suit:
Pregnant friends came to visit our newborn. My husband and I were ragged with sleep deprivation, scared because our baby wasn’t gaining weight, and uncertain of our every move. Our friends smiled at our beautiful baby. “You must be so thrilled!” they said. Umm …
We smiled and nodded. Maybe we’re the only ones struggling like this, I thought. Maybe they won’t. Better not to rain on their parade.
Another time, asked what my day as a stay-at-home mom is like, I just gave the good stuff. Like the day we meandered through a beautiful park in the sun, the trees ablaze with fall colors. We sat down on a swing on a hill overlooking the water. My daughter was in a carrier. She rested her little cheek against my chest and smiled the most contented smile. It made my heart surge with pure joy. “That sounds nice,” my friend said. “It is,” I said.
I did not add: “Yesterday, though, my baby had this huge blowout poop just as we were heading out the door. I mean, all over her clothes, on my shirt. So gross. I’d felt trapped in the house all day and had just finally gotten up the energy to get both of us ready to go for a walk, and here I had to start all over? I just sat down and cried.”
And it’s too bad that I didn’t add that part. When we open up first, the other person often feels permission to open up, too.
A friend later did that for me when she said, “I’m struggling with my toddler hitting other kids. I’m not sure I’m handling it well.” I felt so relieved. That started an honest conversation—and we felt closer to each other for it.
Researcher Brené Brown can tell you what happens when we pretend everything’s fine when it’s not. Often we do that out of shame that we’re not handling everything perfectly or that we’re the only ones struggling. What happens is that we deprive ourselves of true friendship. Friendship happens when we feel accepted for who we truly are. That requires us to be real.
Sounds simple, but for many of us it’s scary to be vulnerable. It takes resolve.
I decided to try it. I used to live near here and sometimes I’d wander around Metropolitan Market when I needed to get out of the house with my baby. Another new mom there saw my baby and asked if I was getting any sleep. I could have downplayed it: “Not much, but I guess that’s how it goes.” Instead I said: “Yeah, right! This sleep deprivation is crazy. My brain isn’t functioning. You know the saying, ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk’? My husband and I actually argued over whether that refers to the mother or the child.” The woman laughed. We commiserated. We felt less alone. That’s no small thing to a bewildered new parent.
And I find something very interesting now, as I write about parenting from a brain-development perspective. It’s no small thing to our baby’s brain, either. Those moments of connection lower our stress, and our stress level directly affects our ability to notice and respond to cues from our babies, and that directly affects how their brains become wired. This is why I feel so strongly about supporting PEPS, because these weekly groups protect both parent and baby at such a fundamental level, right from the start.
Creating your village, your support network, is perhaps the most important thing you can do as a parent. It takes intentional effort, especially these days. And opening up is the first step.
The next time another person (someone you like; someone who’s interested) asks you how it’s going, try going beyond “Good, good.”
Say something honest.
About the Author
Tracy Cutchlow is the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. Parents magazine called it “the coolest–and easiest–book for new parents.” Tracy also edited the bestselling books Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby. As a journalist, Tracy worked for The Seattle Times. Her writing appears in publications from the Huffington Post to the Washington Post. You can find Tracy biking around Seattle and failing to persuade her preschooler to take a nap. Sign up for her weekly parenting tips at www.zerotofive.net.
PEPsTALK is a storytelling contest that aims to give a voice to the highs and lows of parenthood and narrates the winding road of the parenting journey. Tell us your stories from the trenches and step right up to ‘audition’ for PEPsTALK.