This is the very last story in our series of long-time readers’ journeys into motherhood. They have really been wonderful to read and ponder, and this last story is no exception. I love this idea of “conscious incompetence” that Cathy writes about. Please do read and enjoy! Here is her story for your inspiration:
I really had no idea what being a parent would be like for me. How relentless it would feel. As my husband observed during the very first week, it is like the movie Groundhog Day. There is no waking up and having a day off, or going on holiday for a few weeks. It is hard to adjust to the loss of personal freedom, time for yourself and friends and partner, the sheer drudgery of an endless pile of laundry, dirty dishes, and making yet another snack. More than anything, I had no idea that this journey of motherhood would be such a long one.
Although I had thought long and hard about the kind of parent I wanted to be, and if I was ready to take on the responsibility, I had no real understanding of what that actually meant. Like many first-time mothers I spent my pregnancy learning about pregnancy and childbirth, not what came next.
Often we are led to believe that there is only one right way to do things, and that if we turn to an expert then their advice will be that right way, but I realized very early that this is just not the case.
My son was born via emergency caesarian, and consequently I spent a week in hospital. Within the first 24 hours I realized that each midwife was giving me conflicting advice, so with each staff change I received a different set of instructions on how to care for my son.
I had already decided that I would use my observations of my baby to guide me in caring for him. By watching him and his reactions to my behaviour, I would know when I had got it right, and when I need to make a change to my responses. In short, I decided to trust my baby rather than the advice of “experts” who seemed to be saying the opposite.
Although I had little experience of caring for newborns, in fact, little experience of children of any age, I did know something about child development from my previous working life, and most importantly I knew about attachment theory, so I was able to feel certain in my decision not to let my baby “cry it out,” as per the advice of the child heath nurse, who gave me a controlled crying video to watch when my son was only 10 days old.
Likewise, when I bemoaned my son’s waking in the night at 5 months of age I was able to dismiss her comment that he was “manipulating me.”
There were a lot of gaps in my knowledge and understanding, and I turned to many books to help me figure out how to be a more effective parent.
What I came to realize is that much of the parenting advice out there is cultural, that it doesn’t stand up to current psychological knowledge about development, and that a lot of it is based upon the idea that children behave the way they do on purpose, usually to get their own way. If we have been fed this idea and have come to believe it, then the natural reaction for any parent faced with childish behaviour would be anger.
Mothers turn to “experts” because they want to do the right thing. They trust that the advice they will be given will be the best thing for their child. Doesn’t everyone want a peaceful and loving family life? But when we are surrounded by unrealistic expectations of children, when our understanding of them is influenced by cultural myth, we are blind to the truth of what is happening before our eyes. It is a collective dream, and even if we don’t believe it, to swim against the tide of popular cultural expectations is hard. Even if we question the authority of the expert, we are still filled with doubt.
I don’t know how a first-time mother can better prepare themselves for parenting, for it is really only after raising your baby that you understand how to raise this particular baby. It is only after raising your one year old that you understand what it means to raise this one year old, and after raising your six year old that you understand how to raise this six year old………..It’s only with experience that you can say, yes I know how to do that now. When you’ve made your mistakes and seen the consequences. When you’ve lived through that stage of development and seen what it has meant to your individual child.
I see now that being a parent means learning to live with that uncomfortable feeling of “conscious incompetence”, because by the time you move into “conscious competence” your child has moved on to yet another developmental stage, of which you know nothing and have to learn all about them allover again. It is uncomfortable not knowing what to do because we feel that responsibility to do the best for our children so strongly.
I myself had no inkling about the strength of my feelings of love for my child. That motherhood would be such an emotional rollercoaster. No foreknowledge of the anxiety that comes with not knowing how it will all turn out when I want so desperately for it to all be okay.
It has helped me such a lot to learn about stages of development, so that I have realistic expectations of my child and don’t feel frustrated or worried because of his immaturity. Yet I have realized recently that even that can blinker me to the child in front of me. We have to be careful to hold the essence of that individual child in mind, and really see them, not just “two” or “four” or “nine”. We have to see beyond the age and stage, beyond behaviour or immaturity. I realize now that even ages and stages are labels, they are expectations that we have.
There are many things that I would do differently if I had my time over, but what I know for sure, what has been the biggest lesson for me about motherhood, is that almost always when my child’s behaviour is difficult it is a reflection of what is going on for me in that moment, on that day. It is not about wanting his own way, or trying to manipulate me, or being naughty, it is about a loss of connection between us, and my son struggling with that. No book or expert has taught me that. Hard-earned experience has taught me that.
When my son was first born I gazed into his eyes and asked, “Who are you? Teach me about who you are.”
What I realize is that my son is teaching me about who I am.
Thank you for your story, Cathy. And thank you to the beautiful mothers who contributed their stories for this series and I give thanks to all of you who have read these words.