I just learned of this project through one of the commenters on Lady with a View (yeah, it makes me feel kind of like a lurker, but now that it's out in the open, I feel a little less dirty). I'm submitting my own letter to the site, but I'm also putting it here. Take a moment and check it out. If you're a mom and you contribute a letter, I'd love to read it, too.
I don’t know anything about you, but in my mind, you are just starting out on your journey into motherhood. This fits well for me because I am just starting out again on my journey into motherhood. So I will sit here and reflect on what I've learned and what I wish I’d known more than 15 years ago when I became a mom.
The first thing I wish I’d known was that you have to choose an amazing person to be the father of your baby, or babies, as the case may be. My first husband was not amazing and we did not share a great love. He and I got along well enough… until we didn’t. Halfway through my pregnancy, I realized what a poor choice I had made. Understanding I made the decision, nobody forced me into marriage or pregnancy, I never really blamed him for the hard times I later had, raising a son alone. Not being burdened with those feelings was just about the only gift I had to offer myself at the time.
I have since remarried, to a man I recognized early on as the person I should have been waiting for all those years. He and I have an infant daughter. She is, at nearly eight months old, already older than my son was when I started making plans for going home to my mom’s. Unlike my son at this age, she has never ridden in the backseat of a police car to a women’s shelter. She is surrounded by love.
The second thing I wish I’d been able to grasp the importance of and to do is finding other moms who have children around the same age. Oh, I had friends, but not very many and none who were close, geographically. Having friends to share the journey, the laughter and the tears, could have helped me to be a better mother to my son. Once I was back home, I had friends whose children were all older and not so interested in a “baby” to play with. The neighborhood kids (also older) really just wanted to play with his abundance of toys, so I eventually shooed them all away. I see the effect of these choices in his difficulty making and keeping friends.
During my pregnancy with my daughter, I tried feebly to connect with other moms in my Lamaze class. It didn’t pan out because we were all too shy, and I was older than everybody there except my husband and one other dad. But when a new mommy group came around, I joined. Two of my Lamaze class “pals” were there. We still see each other at least monthly, and sometimes we’re joined by other moms from that group, as well as some of our personal "new mommy" friends. Having a mommy community means having someone to turn to for advice or reassurance (my husband is fabulous, but if he just spent the same long night trying to soothe our daughter, he probably doesn't have any more answers than I do). It means sometimes being able to share what has worked and to tell someone else that everything will be okay. And, while it’s too soon to tell if any of the babies will be lifelong friends, they have that chance. For now they are friends from life.
The third thing I wish I’d been able to do better for my son is to become really informed. Sure, I read a few books and took a prepared childbirth class, but the class was so large it was hard to get any answers. Plus, my life was so hectic it was hard to focus. The class was seven or eight weeks long; my husband attended three of them. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be there, but he wanted to get into an argument with the Executive Officer of his ship more, apparently, so I spent a couple of very pregnant months home alone while he was basically grounded to the ship. (Feel free to refer back to the first thing I wish I’d known if you’d like.) With my latest pregnancy, I signed up for a couple of different email services that showed the baby’s progress and development. Many similar services are available for the first year, too. I offered to retake Lamaze “for my husband’s sake.” Being in a room with only seven or eight couples and an experienced and knowledgeable instructor – who taught to the dads as much as she taught to the moms – made a huge difference in how my labor and delivery went the second time. Reading those weekly emails, along with the development and parenting books I prefer, has given me a sense of how wide the range of normal is, and where we fit in relation to it.
Item number four on this list of choices and opportunities is all about routines. Maybe it’s because I had my son when I was practically a wee babe myself (age 22), but I didn’t understand the parents and grandparents I’d met who seemed to know all too quickly what the likes, dislikes, needs, wants and personalities of their little babies were. It struck me as the worst kind of know-it-all behavior, pigeon-holing a baby like that, and I avoided it completely. The upside? I wasn’t a know-it-all. The downside? Well, I didn’t know what I needed to know. When does he need to sleep? When does he need to eat? What time should he go to bed? How is he going to learn to get himself to sleep? Which stuffed animal or toy is his favorite? What does he like to do? After floating through his first year or two, I eventually came up with answers for most of those questions, but at 15 years old, he still has a very difficult time getting to sleep and then staying asleep.
On the flip side, every night, my husband, son and I devote about three hours to our little girl’s bedtime routine. Even when someone in our family is upset with someone else, we put it aside until we finish her night with family story time. My husband and I agonized over how and when we’d teach her to fall asleep on her own. Once we found a method that closely resembled our parenting style, it was pretty easy to do. And when we did help her learn to fall asleep on her own, we also found that she napped better – twice a day for up to two hours at a time, instead of 5-10 minutes if I dared to put her down at all. On the weekends, errands and visits are scheduled around her naps. It turns out that knowing things about your child is a doorway to honoring their needs and who they are as a person. I wish I had known that for my son.
Here’s a little thing I learned just before my daughter was born: Babies reflect their parents’ faces. Infants react to smiles and frowns and deadpan expressions. I always made sure I wasn’t scowling at my son during the falling apart days of my marriage. I also always said about him, “He wasn’t a happy baby, but he wasn’t unhappy, either. He was okay.” I spent the first two weeks of my daughter's life remembering to smile, even though I was distraught that she had to start out in the NICU; even though I was exhausted; even though I was struggling to manage my son; even though, even though, even though. My daughter is the happiest baby. Oh, she’s like me in her need to get things dealt with immediately, but once the problem is resolved, it’s behind her. Sometimes she will try to smile while she’s crying. Last night she laughed through her little bitty, tired tears just because I came closer.
And the last thing that I wish I’d known? The importance of making a parenting plan. Oh, it’s not that I was just winging it, willy-nilly style for my son. But the extent of my plan, had I written it down then, probably would have been “don’t do what Mom did… and when he acts up, deal with it immediately, unlike those annoying parents I see at McDonald’s.” I’d say that, in general, I did accomplish that. Great.
Remember that new mommy group that I joined? One of the jobs we were given was to identify and write down our mission statement for raising our children. Most of the moms wrote beautiful, well thought out letters to their sons or daughters. My husband and I collaborated on ours after ruminating about it during the five weeks between the assignment being given and the date it was due. (Read: I told him about it after the first class. We talked about it once or twice over the next five weeks. On a humid early summer morning, on my way to the last class, while driving from flower shop to flower shop to find just the right plant for the instructor, I frantically called my husband’s cell phone until he picked up and we talked about what to put down on paper. At red lights, I wrote my own shorthand version of whatever he said. In the parking lot, 10 minutes before class started, I cleaned it up and rewrote it.)
It’s not as beautiful sounding as some of the other mom’s. One of my friends just took that same class and her letter made me cry. Last weekend we ran into the instructor and her husband, and she told him about my friend, "This is the mom who will always be the familiar face that reminds her son of home." All the same, in reading and re-reading our plan, it’s a good one. It says what we mean to do. I carry it with me wherever I go. I should have it memorized by now, but more importantly, I have it. We have it.
As I see the differences between what my son experienced and what my daughter’s life is like, I feel sorrow for my son. He is just as good and important and lovable a person as she is. She is going to know her place and her worth in this world. I am still working to help my son find his place.
So it's pretty simple really (ha!). All you have to do is choose the right father, find your place in a mommy community, educate yourself, accept and honor his or her routines and other needs, smile and know what you want the outcome to be for your child. I hope that these (to me) monumental lessons are valuable to you. It’s hard to say how much a person can learn from being told versus experiencing something. All the same, I wish someone had told me these things back when I was starting out.