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Parents confess: The parent I thought I’d be vs. the parent I really am

Sunny Hayes
May 15, 2019
Parents confess: The parent I thought I’d be vs. the parent I really am

Prior to parenting, I had it all figured out — or so I thought. I’d breastfeed exclusively

until my child naturally transitioned to homemade purees. When he was old enough, he’d sit politely at the table and eat a miniature portion of whatever I served his dad. Until then, I’d be your perfect exemplar of attachment parenting, keeping my baby close at all times and never purposely letting him cry. At the same time, somehow, my child would adapt to my lifestyle. In this pre-parenting fantasy, discipline was never really a consideration. The easy baby of my imagination naturally transitioned into an obedient toddler, the kind of kid who can entertain himself for hours playing quietly with classic wooden educational toys. (Do such children really exist?)

Certainly, I’d never become the kind of mom who would shove a screen in their child’s face so I could squeeze in a shower — or so I thought.

Then, our baby was actually born, and my ideals were replaced by reality.  

“Parenting is so different than we think it’s going to be,” says Kate Rope, a journalist, mom to two and author of “Strong As a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood.”

As a journalist who specializes in maternal mental health and parenting, Rope believes most parents approach the role with unrealistic expectations.

“I think we have an unrealistic expectation that we should know exactly how to parent,” Rope says. “The reality is that you’ve never done this before. You’re learning on the job. It’s not going to look anything like you imagined. It’s going to be messy.”

Below, parents comment on some of the typical ways we parent differently than we thought we would before having kids, while Rope offers some insights on why this is absolutely OK.

1. “I feed my kids junk food.”

While all parents intend to make healthy and nutritious choices for their kids, many of us adapt when our picky eaters turn up their nose and go on a hunger strike.  

Portland, Oregon, mom Marissa Korbel says that prior to parenting, she thought she’d feed her daughter organic homemade food and/or whatever she was eating — sushi, Indian food, Thai, etc.

“Instead, my daughter lives on boxed mac n' cheese, CLIF Zbars and white rice,” Korbel says.

Catherine Guggenheimer Pearlman, a mom from New York City, commiserates: “I cut off the crusts, and my kids eat white bread.”

Advice to consider:

When it comes to feeding — and any parenting decision, really — Rope reminds us that what works for one child may not work for another.

“Your child is a person,” she says. “You’re going to get feedback.”

2. “I let my kids look at screens.”

Most parents are familiar with the World Health Organization recommendation regarding screen time. Who among us sets out to break the rules?

“I was an amazing parent before I had a child,” says A.M. O’Malley, a mom from Memphis, Tennessee. “I thought my child would have zero screen time until he was at least 3. This has not been the case, though I try very hard to limit and be mindful about his screen time.”

Hugo Schwyzer, a dad from Hawthorne, California, can relate.

“I was sure the kids would read books and get just a few minutes a day of iPad,” he says. “But the pacification was so immediate, and the gratitude so real, and the fights so exhausting, their mother and I agreed to throw in the towel. Now, I find the best strategy is watching with them, letting my son teach me Subway Surfer or my daughter explain ‘Gilmore Girls,’ rather than fighting it.”

Advice to consider:

While some experts and parents adhere to the guidelines, including Rope, who described herself as “pretty strict when it comes to screens”— others argue convincingly that the WHO’s recommendations seem draconian and out of touch with reality. One example: Emily Oster — author of “Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool” — who argues that there’s no scientific evidence proving any negative effects of screens, and that a little screen time is probably better than a stressed-out parent.

3. “I’m stricter than I thought I’d be.”

You always imagined yourself as more of the natural Earth mama type. Then, you met your tantruming 2-year-old.  

Such was the case for Nina Auctor, a mom from Cleveland, Ohio.

“I thought I’d be more hippie, super laid-back and crunchy,” says Auctor. “The fact is my kid thrives with a structured schedule and relies on me to be his boundaries and safety net. He doesn't want to run around free and wild without anyone knowing where he is, doing whatever he wants.”

“I'm a yeller and use timeouts,” admits Sara Grim, a mom from Phenix City, Alabama. “I also do the 1-2-3 count like my mom did. My kid is really well-behaved with this approach, and I yell/count and timeout much less now that he knows the system. Gentle parenting did not work for us.”

Advice to consider:

“Parenting is a relationship between two people,” Rope says.

In other words, the approach you had planned to take might not work for your kid.

“Be open to experimenting and seeing what works for both of you,” she says.

4.  “I’m a lot more relaxed.”

As a type-A urban professional, prior to having kids, Savannah, Georgia, mom Lisa Junkin Lopez says she felt a “strong pressure” to parent perfectly: “healthy food, never watch television, maybe avoid plastic toys and gendered clothes, make sure the house doesn’t turn into a mess, seamlessly incorporate a kid into my own active life ... all that.”

Then, Junkin Lopez says, “We found out we were having twins. All my expectations for parenting immediately went out the window. Our house is a wreck. We never once pulled out the cloth diapers I registered for. We still try to live our values in parenting but see it as a long-term project. We aren’t shooting for perfect. We are shooting for good enough.”

Halley Bondy, a mom from New York City, says she’s also a lot more laid back than she imagined.

“I thought I'd be a stronger disciplinarian, but my kid draws on the walls,” she says.

Advice to consider:

Your parenting experience will continue to evolve, Rope says.

“What works for you now may change over time,” she says. “Your child is going to go through phases. You’re going to go through phases, too. Your child is going to experiment. You, too. Let it happen. See where it takes you.”

5. “My kids don’t look like they belong in a catalog!”

One thing’s for sure: For most of us, parenting looks different than it does on social media.

Brea Loewit, a mom from Youngstown, Ohio, says that before she became a mom, she remembers thinking she’d never “let” her kids have a dirty face.

“My 11-year-old just informed me that he successfully completed the ‘7-day underwear challenge’ — that’s one pair of underwear for seven days straight — how did I miss this?” Loewit says.

Alexis Schaitkin, a mom from Williamstown, Massachusetts, also imagined a more Instagram-worthy family.

“I thought I would dress my kid in ‘cool clothes,’ not graphic T-shirts of Elmo and basketballs,” Schaitkin says. “Turns out people put their children in these clothes because it is the only way to get them dressed without a tantrum, who knew?”

Advice to consider:

“Life is messy, parenting is messy, kids are messy,” Rope says. “It’s nice to clean up for family pictures, but the real picture of a family is way less put together. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

The bottom line

You’re not a bad parent for not meeting some parenting ideal. In fact, says Rope, the opposite may be true.

“One of the ways to become a better parent is to understand that you will change,” Rope says. “Be open to that transformation.”

Read more: Common parenting styles with a modern twist

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