The moment you realize what it means to be someone else’s parent

The first time I held my daughter

I recently read a new mom ranting about being left at home with her baby overnight for the first time ever. She was mad at her husband for leaving her alone. At her mother for not being able to be there. At every parent who'd come before her who had failed to tell her how hard being a mother was. And frustrated, overwhelmed, and terrified about being the only person responsible for her little one's well being.

What I did not tell her was that the feeling of terror never really goes away. You may get used to the idea of being left alone with your kids, but the idea that you are wholly responsible for this tiny person's health, well-being, and future success and happiness never stops being absolutely terrifying. My daughter is 2, and while I'm pretty okay with being left alone with her most of the time, there are times when I'm still utterly overwhelmed by the fact that I'm responsible for her entire childhood. What I do (or don't do) will shape her future behavior and attitudes and relationships and profession, and I am grossly underqualified to raise a child. Seriously. What the heck have I ever done that would make me an expert in raising a child? Oh, sure, I was one myself once, ages ago, and I'm a responsible, self-sufficient adult in a happy marriage and in good financial standing. Still. I know absolutely nothing about kids, beyond what I've read on the internet and in child development books, and I'm pretty sure "read some articles on the internet" is not exactly the same as being an expert in child-rearing.

The only thing that helps me cope with the occasionally paralyzing sense that I'm not up to the task of raising my child is that billions of other people have brought children into this world before me--and will continue to long after I am dead--and that the vast majority of them have as few qualifications to be parents as I do...and some of them far less. What's more, for eons, people raised children without Google, parenting magazines, or What to Expect books, and still managed to raise at least a few happy, successful people. Humanity survived for many thousands of years with no other source of parenting advice than what parents received from other members of their community. Considering some of the off the wall things I've had friends, family members, and neighbors tell me to do with my child, I find the fact that humanity has survived this long at all to be pretty astonishing. Perhaps, though, it's the best testament to the resilience of children humanity has to offer.

I try to focus on those facts rather than the popularity of therapy, anyhow, or the chances my daughter will someday need it.

The other thing I did not tell this new mom is that parents are constantly trying to explain to non-parents just how hard this job is. It's just that childless people, much like our own kids, don't listen to us. They think we're exaggerating the challenges of parenthood to paint ourselves as martyrs or making excuses for our rotten kids' rotten behavior. Maybe they disbelieve us, because if they actually took what we said to heart, they'd likely never have children, and the human race couldn't survive anymore if everyone realized how tough parenting is before they became parents themselves.

Maybe they don't take us seriously because while we crack a lot of jokes about wine and sleep deprivation, it's difficult for parents to convey just how tough being a parent is. After all, how do you explain to people accustomed to free time and thinking mostly of themselves that their world will, in all of a second, change from being all about them, to all about someone else? How do you explain to them that becoming a parent is basically like invasion of the body snatchers? You look the same on the outside, but everything on the inside is completely different--your priorities, your interests, your hobbies, your relationships, your fears, your identity?

I don't know how you can begin to explain to someone how much responsibility is involved in parenting. It seems fairly simple from the outside. You just make sure your kids are fed, clothed, healthy, loved, and have a safe place to live. But when you look back on your own formative years, and you think about how the very fabric of your childhood was interwoven with your parents' goodness and awfulness and mistakes and successes and ingenuity and failings and love and selfishness and selflessness, and how much all the things they did and didn't do have led you to be the person you are...well, it's no longer so easy. Lots of people love their children, but do a terrible job of raising them, and the only thing more awful than the idea that someday, the sweet little baby you brought into this world and love more than anything won't want to speak to you or have anything to do with you, is the thought that you may have done something that makes them fundamentally unhappy people.

It's a big job. And never is it more clear  just how big it is than that first time you are left alone for a few hours with your newborn, and they are crying and won't stop crying no matter what you do, and then they finally fall asleep in your arms, and even though you've never needed to pee so badly or been so thirsty or been so flipping uncomfortable in your whole entire life, you just sit there holding them, helpless, frustrated, crying, covered in milk and spit up and god knows what other body fluids, wishing for nothing so much as 15 minutes to yourself. 15 minutes of silence to take a shower, put on clean clothes, get a drink of water, use the bathroom, watch whatever you want on TV, run down to the mailbox without having to worry about what to do with your baby, eat a hot meal before it gets cold. But you suppress all of those needs and wants and you just stay there holding your baby, because you know more than anything, this is what they need, and what they need will forever after be far more important than anything you've ever needed or wanted.

No wonder you're mad and scared and frustrated and overwhelmed. You just realized your entire world and identity have shifted. Radically. Forever.

No one told you about this because no one can. It's something you can't know until that awful, harrowing moment, usually when you are all alone and overwhelmed by your baby's needs and just how much those needs demand your immediate and undivided attention, and you have no one else to turn to, because now you are the mom or the dad. You will forever be the person that tiny, precious, vulnerable, beautiful, fragile, malleable ball of human potential turns to for safety, comfort, protection, and love. It's all on you.

Welcome to parenthood.