My daughter Sarah is 21 years old today. Yesterday she was born, and a grinning toothless baby, and a pre-schooler who didn't look back at her teary-eyed mother in the hallway. Yesterday she was a first-grader who enjoyed having Harry Potter read to her but asked if she could read it herself, a middle-schooler playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a high school graduate who danced the tango down the aisle with her best friend while the band played Pomp and Circumstance. Today she's a college student and a writer, grown up, and my nest is a little emptier. I'm proud of her.
Sarah and the three siblings who followed have taught me more than I've taught them. Here are some lessons in motherhood I learned along the way.
- Otherwise breast-fed babies will sleep through the night at six weeks old on their stomachs after one formula bottle with a little rice cereal in it given by dad. Find an old-school pediatrician to approve this. Parents and babies need sleep.
- Use What to Expect and other parenting books as guidelines and suggestions, not bibles or law books. Parent by your gut. No one knows your child more than you do.
- Triple-sheet the crib, with flat waterproof pads in between each layer. Sounds like a small thing, but it’s huge in the middle of the night if a newborn’s diaper leaks. Changing a crib sheet is a nightmare. You’ll appreciate this advice at three a.m. when all you have to do is peel off the dirty sheet.
- When a toddler throws a fit, walk away. They’re trying to get your attention; don’t give it to them. They’ll figure out quickly that you give attention when they’re acting like humans, not aliens. Say no. My mom always said discipline is the second most important thing you give your kid after love, and she was right.
- Always make doctor’s appointments for either first thing in morning or first thing after lunch. Minimizes your healthy-child visit office wait time. Why expose your healthy kid to a waiting room full of sick kids longer than necessary?
- Your child’s grades and accomplishments are not what are important, so stop bragging about them on Facebook. What kind of person they are is what matters.
- Read to your child and s/he has a better chance of becoming a reader, but not every kid loves to read. Kids who don’t have a natural passion for reading prefer non-fiction books on topics that interest them versus storybooks.
- Let them wear the princess dress to pre-school, or the outfit they chose that doesn’t match. Childhood is too short. Choose your battles.
- Let teachers do their jobs. Would you want someone micromanaging you as a mother? But fly your broomstick over to the school when necessary. Save that for very rare occasions, and always to advocate for something that’s really bothered your kid.
- You're in charge, not your kid. They'll be as picky an eater as the number of times you get up and make them something else to eat. Let them know the score of the game; not everyone can win it. You're not doing the world a favor if you raise a spoiled brat.
- Cut the cord. Allowing children a level of independence tells them that you trust them. They know you’re there even if you don’t chaperone every event they attend.
- Stop screaming at sports games. No one likes this, least of all your kid. Try attending one game where you only say positive things.
- Let them talk. Ask how their day was. It’s so easy to fire questions and orders at our kids, and less easy to just listen to them.
- Remember everything is a phase. Whether it’s potty-training or middle-school hormonal attitudes or unsightly piercings, it will pass with time, changing just like the weather.
- Parenting was easier before Facebook. Ignore the other parents on Facebook. There’s an arrow in the upper right hand corner of posts in your feed and you can hover over it and magically unfollow/hide people. Do this for anyone who either wastes your time bragging about their kids endlessly or in some way makes you question your ability as a parent.
- Realize you’ll mess up. You’ll do and say stupid things as a parent. Say you’re sorry. Forgive yourself. Move on.
- Understand that unless you are in an extremist religion, there is a very slim chance that your offspring will go to their wedding as a virgin. Talk to your kids about sex. Lose the shame and guilt around the topic. It's amazing how many parents, who were sexually active in high school, act as though their kids aren’t having sex. Condoms are "protection, not permission” mainly because you are far too young to be a grandmother. No sense in burying your head in the sand about drinking or pot, either. Be a realist; it will keep them safe.
- Text your kid. Getting your kid a phone is a communication and safety tool for you, not a luxury for them. They’ll talk to you more on this venue, that they prefer.
- Always be on your kids’ side and let them know you’re always there. The world can suck. They need to know you are there for them no matter what.
- Don’t avoid social media. Forbidding Facebook after their policy age (13) or other social media like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat is silly and embarrasses your kids socially. Learn about the social media your kids want to be on, have your own accounts, and set guidelines. Get out of the dark ages. They aren’t where your kids are.
- Love your kids, and let them know you do. Nothing else matters.
—Mary McCarthy is on Twitter @marymac