Zig-Zag Mama: A Mamafesto

Let me just start here: I have been wrong.

I thought it was going to take us forever to get pregnant. Nope! First month out of the gate and my eggs were like heeyyyy and M’s swimmers were like s’up and then I was like, wait, what? Already? Literally every doctor I saw in the previous half-decade told me I might have problems conceiving. And yet here we are: two blue lines.

I thought I was going to enjoy being pregnant, but it was actually kind of a drag. I thought I was going to have a natural birth, but I ended up with a natural labour and a medical birth, thanks to a series of unfortunate events that would put Lemony Snicket’s hands a-tremblin’.

The list goes on. I thought we would co-sleep; I couldn’t deal with it. I thought I’d wear him all the time; he declined, vigorously, for months. I thought I’d make a zillion mom friends; I mostly deepened the friendships I already had. I thought breastfeeding would be instinctual; it took several lessons before I got the hang of it. I never thought we’d use cry-it-out sleep training; we did, and it worked.

I couldn’t find the answers I needed in a book or a philosophy, or from a sleeping arrangement or a wrap. I had to look at my baby, a thousand times a day, and think, “What do you need?” Sometimes the answer was as simple as “to gaze mystically at the ceiling fan.” Sometimes, it was more complex, like sleep training.

The dirty secret of parenting is that it can’t be done by prescription. You take a boot camp’s worth of Mommy Wars talking points, a soupcon of your mother’s advice, a thick ribbon of everyone’s-still-alive-at-the-end-of-the-day laissez faire, and maybe a chapter or two of the book you swore was way off base, and you end up with something that works, for the most part, probably. I had to reassess the way I consumed information about parenting. How do I synthesize my thoughts on any given parenting challenge? What emotions colour this process? (Anxiety about screwing NS up was a big factor, as was wanting to fit in with my mama friends.) Do I trust the expert sources I’m consulting? Who has lived experience with this issue? Do I trust them? (Or, do we share a sense of humour? Can we laugh about it while we stand in someone’s driveway?) What does my husband/co-parent think? And, mostly, what does my gut say?

Anyone who tells you with authority that they’ve found The Ultimate Parenting Philosphy is either leaving something out, or they’re the 0.1% of people who lucked into babies who matched their ideal template. For the rest of us, though, coming up with a parental philosophy is a luxury that comes somewhere after wine, silence, and naps on the gotta-have-it list. But if I had to sum up mine, it would be something like: You must zig. You must zag. You must be kinder than you’d expect—to yourself, your partner, your friends, the mothers you know well and barely at all. You must be tougher, too, to survive the heartbreaks and the fear. You must build your relationship with your kids brick by brick, and sometimes the bricks will be perfect and squared off, and sometimes the bricks will be half-baked and jammed into the mortar with exasperation. But at the end of the day, if you try, you’re probably going to end up with a pretty great house.

So, with that in mind. Here are the basic tenets that are guiding me these days:

You can’t win. I don’t mean that you can’t have really lovely moments with your baby. What I mean is, parenting isn’t a competition. There’s nothing to win. You will make mistakes, even if you follow a parenting philosophy to the letter. You will have victories, even if you subscribe to no parenting philosophy at all. And, most of all, 99% of those mistakes and victories will be invisible to the outside world. Some days, “winning” looks an awful lot like survival. Others, it feels like a triumph. Mostly, it’s just getting into bed and feeling like maybe, slowly, things are taking shape.

Be honest. This is probably the biggest challenge for so many people, because it ties directly into “you can’t win.” Being honest means that you ask for help, that you say no, that you share the gross story or the anecdote about fucking up—and not in a funny, shruggy way, but in a way that creates space for others to say, “I’ve done the same,” or “Wow, I had no idea.” Being honest about how hard this is, how fun it is, how much of a grind the day-to-day can be, allows people to recognize their humanity in yours. I know this sounds all woo-woo, but some of the deepest connections I’ve had over the last six months have been moments of commiseration after I’ve said, out loud, “I’m having a tough time.” Give people the option of seeing how things really are for you, and you may be surprised at how much they give of themselves back.

The baby is a member of the family, not the alpha and omega of the family. God, I love this baby. I do! But I also love my husband. I love my parents. And I’m pretty protective of my own sanity, too. Having a baby means a complete deconstruction of your family dynamic, and it can be jarring to realize how much energy I’ve been expending trying to entertain and educate the baby, when he’s perfectly happy chomping on a wooden spoon while I dash off a few emails. Bearing in mind that yes, NS is currently the highest-needs member of the family, when we make decisions, we try to find solutions that benefit all of us, not just NS. This is why sleep training happened, and why the family bed turned out to be for married members of the family only. Balancing our needs/wants with his needs/wants makes everyone a little more functional.

Life is long and this time is short. A dual reminder. One day, NS will be older, with his own interests and hobbies. He’ll be independent! (This is such a weird thing, because right now, he can’t even sit up on his own.) M and I can explore the things we put on hold for a few years. Maybe I’ll get really into ultramarathons or European river cruises; maybe, as a family, we’ll get explore vegetarian cookery or DisneyWorld. Things that feel far away now will come roaring along soon enough. Also: this time is scant and he evolves constantly. Challenges that stretch forever in the night will seem like the blink of an eye in a few weeks. Savour what we can, and embrace the changes, and appreciate that, so far, our daily survival rate is 100%.

About the Author

Kaitlyn Kochany
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Kaitlyn Kochany is a Toronto-area freelance writer and editor. She had her son, NS, in January 2016, and has been trying to sleep and write since then.

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