They don’t tell you that you will spend thousands of dollars on trips to visit family, vacations, and weekend getaways with your spouse. Only to end up with your kids sick, and at the hospital, with broken limbs and contagious diseases that require sleep and downtime, prescriptions and medical devices, rest and confinement, cancelled flights and forfeited hotel rooms, discarded plans. They don’t tell you that this won’t be an anomaly. That this will happen almost every single time you try to do something that you look forward to, like a bad joke or cliche on a dumb family sitcom. And they don’t tell you how to move on, how to keep planning, keep up hope that you will get some break from the monotony, when it seems to be thwarted at every turn.
They tell you that your husband may get jealous, and you have to focus on couple time. They don’t tell you that by the end of the day, with one sick child clinging to you in a death grip, and the other child crying from neglect, and a third whining incessantly that you never play with her, that if one more person makes a demand of you or your body you will seethe with resentment so profound you might break something.
They don’t tell you how to get rid of this resentment. Just that it’s up to you to make sure your husband, your marriage, is bathed with intimacy. That though you’d rather sleep, if you know what’s best for you, your marriage, your children, it’s on your shoulders to make sure everyone is happy. To caretake.
They don’t tell you that your back will be so wrenched from carrying them since conception that you’ll have to take Flexiril just to move. Or that you won’t be able to sleep for worry and to do lists and play dates gone awry and you’ll need Ambien to close your eyes. Or that you will have such bad anxiety from constant death watch duty that you can’t function without Ativan. Or that you’ll be so lonely, so disillusioned, so depressed that you’ll need Paxil.
They don’t tell you what to do when you’ve cooked a gorgeous meal, and given it to your one-year old, and she’s eating it! And loving it! And when you get up to pour yourself a glass of water, she’s taken those quick moments to dump her sippy cup all over the food, and splash around in it, and dissolve it into a mushy waterlogged paste.
And that act produces just the right combination of thwarted effort, and exhaustion, and disappointment, and anger and resignation that it unlocks a secret door deep inside, one that was hidden down in the steamy, rank, dark alley of your soul. And out sneaks a monster. An ugly, warted and decaying version of yourself that you never knew existed, one filled with rage, one that takes the plate and throws it with the force of a vengeful Greek god against the wall. And when it doesn’t give a satisfying break, picks it up and throws it again. And just as quickly, POOF! slithers away. So that you are left crying on your knees, crying with your crying children, guilt ridden and questioning your sanity, knowing that your kids are better off without you, that they should not have to witness this monster, that you as their protector have failed miserably.
They tell you that they kids will be alright. That you don’t need to develop elaborate rituals to help them sleep, or eat, or poop correctly. You don’t need to drive them around for two hours every day during nap time with your pre-established route so that you don’t hit any stoplights so they will close their eyes and rest. You don’t need the – swaddle, paci, ten minutes in the swing, transfer to crib, sing lullaby twice – routine that you have painstakingly devised.
You don’t need to worry that they refuse to eat in their highchair now, but will eat the exact same meal scattered about on various low-lying tables so that they can graze at will as they make their way around the room. You don’t need to do that.
Your toddler will be fine without you providing the Elmo potty book, plus ambient music, with three, exactly, sheets of toilet paper and one spritz of the cinnamon air freshener to make their elimination more comfortable, and therefore more likely.
They tell you that the kids will be alright without you doing all these things. But they don’t tell you whether you will be. They don’t talk about how the stress of one more meal dumped on the floor, one more short-nap-induced cranky baby, one more poo in the pants and not the toilet, how that stress will beat you down so thoroughly you can’t even cry anymore. How it will cause you to lob words like grenades at the people around you who care about you. How it will dry out your insides, make it as barren as the desert, how the anger and rage at not being in control glares like an unrelenting sun on this desiccated part of yourself, how then guilt snaps across like wind, whipping it all into a disorienting dust storm. How you are desperate for that part of you to be lush and green and blooming with the love and radiance and contentment that should be there.
They tell you kids shouldn’t watch tv, that they should get outside every day, that they need to be playing! They don’t tell you that by 8 am, when you’ve been up for 3 hours already and have 12 more to go, and it’s 10 degrees outside, and you all have been rotating through a never-ending flu, what to do to keep from hurting each other.
They don’t tell you your daily threshold of will power and patience will be depleted early and often, and that you have to find it from somewhere, somehow, so you can keep on driving to the grocery store and not into the river. And they don’t tell you where to look for this extra reserve, except that you need to have “me” time sometimes to recharge.
And they don’t tell you that there’s never enough “me” time. That “me” time is a fucking joke, a thing magazine editors and book authors write from a perch separated from you by time or life experience. A thing they write to hide the truth, that no amount of me time gets you back to feeling in control, feeling like the person you used to be. There is no balance. There is you, sacrificed on the alter, so that your kids can live off of what remains. Literally, in the beginning, and yet this nourishment continues, this host and sponge biological arrangement, as they consume your brain cells, your sanity, your patience. You.
They tell you ways to stay in control of this new phase of your life. They don’t tell you reality – that there is no control. That the absolute hardest thing that any adult has to do, in the well-ordered world that they’ve painstakingly built for themselves, is give up control, and yet that is what you must do.
An adult can break up with nasty friends. An adult can use reasonable persuasion to make deals, be disappointed but know logically why one thing or another didn’t go his or her way. But an adult negotiating with a toddler has absolutely no control. There is no logical argument to tempt on a shoe when your adversary refuses. No amount of verbal or physical force can negotiate a child into a toilet habit. And the seeming insignificance of a mercurial preference for grapes, or Mickey Mouse underwear, or Legos; the ever-changing motivations, the inability to predict their behavior, will grind you down to raw nerves.
They tell you there are lots of good times, lots of joy, parenting is hard but so worth it, this too shall pass. And of course there are good times. These years hold amazing moments, bright bursts of fireworks, moments of grace, miracles too many to mention, on a daily basis. But they don’t tell you how to keep those moments in sight. How to focus on those. What to do when the gratitude journals, and the “today’s good things” conversations around the dinner table, and the photo books, and the yoga, and the moms groups, and the “me” time, don’t seem to counteract the gut-wrenching anxiety that you are doing this totally, irrevocably wrong, because you should, really, be happy. The dread at the joy/relief/contentment that twinges inside when you follow your thoughts down the path of – what if I had moved to Paris instead of all this. The horror at the hope you feel one split second after you think – I know women who’ve left. I still could.
All of these people with all of their good advice. They say “forgive yourself.” But they don’t tell you how.