No matter how much you study milestone charts or plan what you'll do when your baby cries, real life as a mom can be a shocker. What do you really need to know to be prepared? Experienced moms from around the country look back on when they first became mothers and offer these tips:
"Take all the help you can get -- the whole first year" You've heard you'll need it those first couple of weeks. Well, that's not nearly enough. "You need help in weeks one through fifty-two, as far as I'm concerned," says Mollie Hart, the Berkeley, California, mom of 11-year-old Nick and 3-year-old George. "A lot of people think new parents are okay after the early weeks, but that's when the honeymoon period ends and you realize that maybe your baby isn't such a good sleeper after all."
Help can come in many forms. You might find a good friend or relative who'll agree to take the baby for a stroll every now and then while you take a nap. Or you might decide to pay for a convenience, such as a weekly cleaning service or grocery delivery.
Find a network by getting to know your neighbors or joining a church or community group. This is how car pools, playdates, and moms' groups get started. There's safety in numbers.
"Alone time is good" Letting the baby gurgle happily in his bouncy seat while you fold laundry is not neglect. You're not the first mom to think, "Will my baby suffer if I put him down to take a shower? Better not, just to be safe!" But experienced moms want you to know that you really don't have to worry so much.
When Gail Doeff of Evanston, Illinois, became a mom, she took her role very seriously. "I thought that I was at home with my daughter Nina to stimulate her and interact with her constantly," she says. "I really, really wish I'd listened to my own mom when she tried to tell me that it wouldn't hurt to let her play alone." She didn't believe it, however, and kept up the constant attention. The result? "Even at age four, Nina couldn't entertain herself," says Doeff.
She learned her lesson. Lauren, her second daughter, got alone time (with Mom nearby, doing other things, of course), and she's now able to amuse herself for hours on end with her dollhouse or a coloring book. "Train them early, new moms," Doeff says, "and you'll spare yourself a child who constantly says, 'I'm bored.'"
"Expect to see a new side of your husband" Kids change everything, and not just your taste in cars. In the coming years, you'll probably have to get to know your spouse again. Children do seem to bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people.
Jhoanna Wade knew her husband, Will, would be a good dad, but she thought it was because he's a responsible man and would set a good example for his kids. "I just didn't expect how goofy he'd be," says the New York City mom of two. "He's a tad formal and very cerebral, but he's so freewheeling with them. He'll act like a complete idiot just to make them laugh. I love it!"
The effect isn't always so positive. Some husbands are taken aback by the amount of time their wives are now devoting to the baby -- and not to them. It can result in a strained relationship as well as little help for you with dirty diapers and nighttime feedings. If you sense that your husband's jealous of your newborn, try to find ways to include him. And don't ignore it: It's an issue to face now, before it goes on too long.
Contributing editor Julie Tilsner is the author of three humor books.
Don't sweat it
"Try to enjoy the moment" There are times in your first year as a parent when you wonder whether you're going to make it. You're too tired. Too frazzled. Too overwhelmed. As experienced moms, we understand exactly how you feel, because we know that not only will you survive the first year, you'll come to miss it too. I recently held my neighbor's 4-month-old for her entire two-hour morning nap because I couldn't bear to part with that wonderful sleeping-baby weight on my arm and lap.
The lesson: Stay in the moment, because the moment won't last. "You think it's never going to end, and then suddenly your kids aren't kids anymore at all," says Debbie Schechner of Scottsdale, Arizona, whose "baby boy" is now 19.
But how can you stay in the moment when the moment's eating you alive? "Remind yourself every day that your baby won't stay a baby for very long, so you should just go ahead and enjoy him and forget about doing the dishes for now," Schechner says.
And keep notes, because you'll forget those delicious details. Jotting down a thought here and there in a plain old notebook will do: The fancy baby book can come later, when you're not so tired.
"Don't sweat the milestones" Baby books have their timelines for everything, from when to wean to how many words your child should know by a certain age. And we get upset when our babies don't demonstrate great interest in playing along.
Moms of older kids say that at age 4 or 5, children start pushing themselves to be more grown-up. They want everyone (in the outside world, at least) to know that they're big kids now. That's why they insist that their nighttime pull-up "is not a diaper!" as my own daughter yells whenever I slip and call it such. Debbie Granick of St. Louis says her 5-year-old makes it very clear that she's not to pack his sippy cup in his lunch box -- even though drinking warm milk out of the beloved cup is part of his morning wake-up routine.
All your effort to hurry your child along to self-sufficiency is misspent energy. Your baby will give up his bottle/pacifier/lovey on his own. And when he does, he won't look back.
"The 'rules' aren't written in stone" No matter how "official" the advice, it's still advice. To see how fluid the rules are, pick up a 30-year-old copy of Dr. Spock's Baby and Childcare and compare it with the edition published 10 years ago, and then with the most recent one. Note how breastfeeding wasn't offered as the best option. Notice the advice to put your baby down on her stomach. See when it recommends starting solids. Hmmm. Your own mother followed these "rules" -- and you lived to see the new versions today, right? That's because these are guidelines; you're the one who has to make the decisions.
Time and time again, you'll be called upon to act according to your best judgment, without the chance to consult a book or an expert. "Fortunately, your best judgment is probably right," says Paula Elbirt, M.D., a mom of three and the author of Dr. Paula's House Calls to Your Newborn.
My pediatrician sent 3-month-old Annie and me to a hearing specialist because Annie didn't startle at loud noises, which is normally a cause for concern. But I wasn't worried. "She's just a mellow baby," I kept telling my worried family. "She can hear fine." Indeed, the specialist agreed after extensive testing. "She's got textbook hearing," she told me. "And I've never seen a more relaxed baby."
"Your child's an individual from the day he's born" Your baby's personality -- whether high-strung, grumpy, or easygoing -- is there from the get-go. It can be a nightmare: He won't stop screaming, and you're sure that if only you were a better parent, you'd be able to do something about it.
But you're wrong! And since new moms don't need anything else to worry about, trust that this is hardly your fault. Gayle Ledbetter's now 11-year-old son, Jake, had all the traits of a Type A personality from day one. "He never slept. Ever," says Ledbetter, of Cullman, Alabama. "He was never full. He could never relax. He had to be held facing outward all the time." But this intense baby turned into an organized, together preteen. Jake's always up on time and even packs his little sister's lunch. "For such a tough baby, he sure has turned out to be an awesome kid," Gayle says.
"Prepare yourself for another one" Nobody's saying that just one child is easy. But moms of two wish they'd been told how hard it was going to get. Kelli O'Reilly of Palm Coast, Florida, was heavily pregnant with her second child when she met another mom, with three little girls in tow, at the library. "Going from two to three is easy," the woman told her. "It's going from one to two that's the killer."
"I guess that's what women say to you when you're pregnant but they can't scare you with horror stories about labor anymore," says O'Reilly.
But the truth is, with two, you not only have to care for a helpless newborn, you also have to deal with the needs of another child, often a toddler.
The good news: You're an experienced mom now, and you'll get up to speed very quickly. "A lot of it is knowing more about what a baby really needs," says Amy Connor, a mom of four in Tucson, Arizona. "Babies don't need a bath every night, they don't need a new shirt every time they spit up, and they don't need to go to the doctor just because they sneeze." Another bonus? Your older kids will sometimes entertain the baby, freeing you up for other activities, like doing yet another load of laundry.
"Competitive mothering is a waste of time" It's only natural to want the best for your baby. We've all hotly discussed topics that seem like life-or-death issues at the time. Colleen Arnold of Hayward, California, is part of several moms' groups that are currently debating sleep issues. "Some are into crying it out, and others are more attachment focused. Everyone is convinced she's right," she says.
What experienced moms know: The day will come when you're standing in a room full of 5-year-olds and you realize it's impossible to tell the kids who were breastfed exclusively for three years from those who got formula from birth on. They're all healthy, they're all clever, and they're all speaking in full sentences.
"As a kindergarten teacher, what I can tell is which kids have been read to a lot and which kids have to follow a set of rules at home," says Janet Johnson of Troy, Alabama.
Of course there will be kids on either end of the health or brains spectrum, and whether their conditions were caused by the early decisions their parents made will always be an open question. But the point is that new moms shouldn't waste energy getting judgmental about one another's (or their own!) feeding, sleep, or discipline choices in the early years, because it will all end up a wash by kindergarten. Know this: It isn't a contest to win.
Experienced moms know too much sometimes. We know, for example, that you may ignore all of these wise words we're offering. And that's okay. We had first babies ourselves once, and we weren't about to listen to anyone, either. But think: Would we steer you wrong? Never.