Babies are adorable! There's nothing like the love surge of a full-body hug or the amazed pride you feel when your toddler takes his first steps!
Enough about the bright side. We do moms a disservice if we only gush about the countless truly terrific aspects of raising a child and neglect to mention the, well, harsher realities. It's useful to know that there are not-so-hot sides of the job, if only to take the edge off those inevitable pains of feeling exasperated, unnerved or just surprised. And it's reassuring to know you're not the only one to admit a downside even exists. This is my list—you'll probably have one, too.
There is no learning curve
Rather, if you graphed it, it would just go up and up. By the time you master colic, it's over. All your smug expertise at changing diapers on an upright toddler becomes obsolete when she graduates to big-kid underwear. Net result: You never feel quite on top of things.
And although the firstborn breaks you in for the next, number two is usually so different in temperament, taste or developmental pacing that what you learned the first time often doesn't work or apply. My oldest, Henry, would only respond to the loudest of shouts and severest of threats. But when I tried my hard-learned disciplinary tactics on next-in-line Eleanor, the slightest raised voice would make her quiver and tear up.
A good mental workout. I've learned a lot about human behavior that I might not otherwise have—plus a lot about kids' music and books, the art of bandage application, and how to make dinner really fast.
You run in circles
"The minute you get one thing solved, there's something else to do," says Janine Saber of Orinda, California, about the unending rounds of feeding, diapering and bedtime that punctuate life with young children. For moms accustomed to completing projects and advancing careers, the chronic spin cycle of caretaking can feel frustrating and mind-numbing.
If you have more than one child, the circles begin to overlap. "It's like multitasking-plus," says Saber. "I can't tell you how many times I've forgotten to feed the baby cereal along with her morning formula because my six-year-old was late for school."
"Once you realize you have no control, you're in total control," Saber says. "Then you can say, 'Okay, I'll just go with the flow.'"
You'll feel helpless sometimes
You're ready and willing to do anything in the world to make your child safe and happy. But even at the playground and at home, circumstances will unfold beyond your direct control. "It hurt to see one of my kids being teased or excluded at playgroup," says Ann Douglas, a mom of four in Peterborough, Ontario, and the author of The Mother of All Parenting Books. When two of her kids were being bullied at school, she kept wondering if there was more she could do to help her kids deal, she says.
Because it's your child, you'll be amazed at how you can come up with a solution—or find a friend who's gone through something similar. Douglas made an effort to talk more with the school's teachers; once they were put on alert about her kids' problems, she had a better sense of how they were getting through the day.
You don't get instant replays
You will say the wrong thing. You will do the wrong thing. This is true of life in general, of course. But with a child it's especially tough because you're making so many split-second decisions in any given hour—and the repercussions of those decisions are helping to form a growing psyche!
I felt sure my daughter Margaret, then 3, would hate me forever when she asked if she could watch Star Wars with her brother again and I barked, "No! Time for bed! You've watched too much TV and maybe we should get rid of that TV!" On and on—transferring a work-related anger to a small, innocent bystander. (Seven years later, I'm pretty sure she loves me still...and we still have a TV.)
Losing your cool can be a gentle reminder to count to ten before you speak the next time. But it's also humanizing. A few missteps won't scar your child. So apologize if it's appropriate and move on, because your child will.
Dealing with insults, loss of privacy and more
There's no privacy
"I was in the bathroom when my then six-year-old looked at the string dangling from my so-called private parts and said, 'Mommy, I think you sat in some gum,'" says Kristine Breese, a Los Angeles mother of two who wrote Cereal for Dinner. "When you become a mom, you can't even put a tampon in without being interrupted."
Your kids can learn patience, self-sufficiency and the meaning of privacy—if you set boundaries. "At a certain point, you start locking the bathroom or saying some-thing to stop your child from barging in," Breese says. "This represents a huge step forward as you realize that being at their constant disposal is not really what your kids need."
Your baby will eventually insult you
Indulge in a nice-mommy whim and make a special chocolate-chip face on a toddler's pancake, and you're liable to be met with indignant howls. ("That's not how a pancake looks!") One minute you're the best thing since ice pops and the next, mud. And the mercurial moods of a growing child mean you never know which will happen when.
Repeated verbal stabs make you more immune to them. Unless it's clearly intentional antisocial rudeness (rare before the school years), blame child development and don't take anything personally. Two-year-olds, for instance, are notoriously resistant to change because they're trying hard to figure out the world and once they've "got" a concept down (pancakes don't have faces), it's disorienting to have their expectations foiled.
You have to force yourself to back off
If, like me, you're a Type A control freak (or were in your pre-kids life, until they leeched it out of you), it's a constant internal struggle not to step in and finish the puzzle, Velcro-shut the sneaker yourself or issue reminders every ten seconds about what your child should do, say, or remember.
The more you incrementally step back, the more self-sufficient they become, which is how it's supposed to be. Kids need to do many things on their own—and feelings of accomplishment are as mentally healthy for them as they are practical. One morning I watched my 5-year-old laboriously try and try again as my hurry-meter clanged inside me. But you know what? I refrained from butting in as long as she was calm and focused—and she did it! Her pride was far more valuable than my hectoring would have been.
You won't know if you've done a good job for, oh, 20 or 30 years
Every decision you make—from discipline to extracurricular activities—has repercussions, though usually not as momentous as you may think. You can have a pretty good inkling of how things are going, but you won't really know what sort of person you've helped to create until your child is fully grown.
That's the marvelous mystery of parenting. So much time, money, hope and love poured into one tiny creature—but I can't think of a better use for those resources.
Paula Spencer is the coauthor of Bright From the Start (Gotham), out this month.