Unrealistic expectations give parents a tough time

Give parents a break by sharing the spectacular tantrums and parenting wobbles

He may not sleep a wink, but he’s still  a good baby. Photograph: iStock

He may not sleep a wink, but he’s still a good baby. Photograph: iStock

 

I almost choked on my digestive biscuit as I read a recent article suggesting that mothers lost on average one hour’s sleep a night in the first three months of a baby’s life and 40 minutes thereafter in the first year.

“Forty minutes. Forty minutes – as if!” I exclaimed (though to who I’m not quite sure), feeling my outrage, at what had to be a serious underestimation of the sleep deprivation inflicted on new parents, merited at least somewhat of a rant.

My indignation wasn’t just caused by the incongruity of the claim, compared with my own experience of sleep deprivation and interruption that has made up my nights for more than 17 years. But more the fact that these sort of unrealistic expectations just set new parents up to “fail”, anticipating levels of sleep disruption many parenthood veterans could only dream of – if only they were let sleep long enough.

Unrealistic expectations seem to make up so much of parenthood ideology.

Jen Hogan and her children.
Jen Hogan and her children.
I declared each child to be, in fact, the best baby ever adding though he doesn’t sleep a wink

I realised I was in unexpected competitive territory when my first child was born and I was asked frequently if she was “a good baby” – “good” being equated with sleeping through the night and not crying much. It’s the sort of loaded question every mother dreads because, after all, who in their right mind is going to label their precious baby as anything but. And it was that reluctance which meant I never really flagged how little she slept or how unsettled she could be. I’d heard all that would change after she reached the six-week mark. She finally slept through the night when she was three years old.

Second and subsequent times around, my expectations were more realistic, but the same “is he a good baby” question kept coming. Proudly, I declared each child to be, in fact, the “best baby ever” adding “though he doesn’t sleep a wink”.

This regularly confused the question-poser who either felt a need to share their story of a mythical child who slept a full eight hours from birth or else suggested that I didn’t let my six-week-old baby sleep until he had consumed at least 10oz which, I was assured, would “knock him out for the night”.

As it happens I was breastfeeding but irrespective as a firm believer in feeding on demand, the notion of putting my baby into a force-fed, over-full stupor held no appeal. “You know babies are actually meant to wake at night,” I replied, still feeling a need to defend my infant son and his nocturnal behaviour.

Of course unrealistic expectations of parenthood go well beyond sleep. Some are borne of things we convince ourselves such as “sure it can’t be that bad, otherwise people wouldn’t do it over and over again”, and others are based on what we read or hear. But the reality is that most people put their best foot forward in public anyway, preferring not to air their dirty laundry, spectacular tantrums or parenting wobbles for all to see.

Over the years, from the time of my very first pregnancy test right up to now I’ve read all I can about parenthood – wanting to get it right, lapping up other people’s experiences and searching for similarities and reassurances that how parenthood played out for me was the same as it played out for others, at least some of the time.

I read gushing articles about the perfection of motherhood and its completely fulfilling and rewarding nature, and others that bemoaned a loss of self and freedom with any slivers of positivity lost beneath the weight of change that motherhood had brought. And I read the funny pieces, the ones I loved the most – the pieces that reminded me kids aren’t just weapons of mass destruction, but also the greatest entertainment, once the red mist has dispersed.

We don’t change who we fundamentally are when parenthood comes knocking. It’s just our perspective and priorities that change

Of course, in reality, parenthood has proven to be all of these things rather than any exclusively. Tears, tantrums, snots and laughter make up any given day here, and the kids have been known to have breakdowns too. Underneath it all, thankfully, I haven’t lost that sense of self. I’m still me, buried deep in laundry.

Because realistically we don’t change who we fundamentally are when parenthood comes knocking. It’s just our perspective and priorities that change. Underneath we’re the same people, albeit with a new particular set of skills.

“This too shall pass,” could be a mantra of parenthood. These nights my sleep is not disturbed by babies needing to be fed or wanting to play, but by toes up my nose and arms flung across my head as smallies join us throughout the night. This too shall pass, but I hope not as quickly.

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