It feels like I just took this selfie yesterday. My face was still puffy from pregnancy hormones and getting no sleep. (Ok, the no sleep thing is still kind of happening.) That feeling of just having a baby…the fogginess, exhaustion, and physical pain, mixed with joy and gratitude for the new beautiful tiny baby is such a unique experience–it’s different from anything else I’ve experienced in my life.
We were still living with my in-laws while our home was being renovated. Andy (my husband) was working his crazy summer schedule as a musician, gone for days at a time. Needless to say, having 4 kids under the age of 6 was hard. It is hard.
Of course I had been warned before having my first child. “You’ll never sleep again”, “Enjoy time with your husband now while you can” and other somewhat unhelpful advice. Sure, I knew children are demanding and can be difficult at times. Babies are unpredictable, hard to soothe and up all hours of the day and night. Toddlers have endless energy and poor communication skills and are prone to temper tantrums. We’ve all heard about these things but why doesn’t anyone talk about the practical day-to-day demands of parenting?
I want to talk about some of the details of raising small children, including WHY it’s so challenging, and offer some practical advice from my own experiences. If you are expecting a child, or are planning on becoming a parent, or maybe trying to decide whether to have another, you’ve come to the right place.
Leaving the house is a challenge
When I first had Lila, my oldest, I thought getting ready to go out was so hard. I would pack the diaper bag, feed her, change her diaper and her outfit, just to have her throw up on herself and poop again, before I even got out the door. Then when she was a little older and I had another baby, Violet, there were different challenges. (The girls are only 15 months apart. You can read more about our family here.) Making sure I had packed enough snacks, a change of clothes in case of accidents, the diaper bag, and they were both clothed, changed, fed, and somewhat happy before we left the house felt almost impossible at first. Fast forward to the present and I am happy to say I am an expert when it comes to getting my 4 kids ready to go. It no longer feels impossible, although it can still be a struggle.
I always try to give myself about 30 minutes before we have to go to get the kids ready. (This does not include getting myself ready.) I collect whatever I need before even starting to get the kids ready, whether it’s food we need to bring somewhere or birthday gifts for a party, beach gear, you name it. I put anything I need on our table by the door so I can’t miss it. If it’s especially cold or hot outside I will start the car to warm it up/cool it off. I get the two older kids ready first, making sure they’re dressed, get their shoes on, comb their hair, etc. Then I will change Henry and make sure he’s changed and dressed with shoes on. I save Teddy for last, changing his diaper and shoes. I put the kids in the car, making sure they are strapped in.
Henry, my 3 year old, tends to leak on long car rides. I put him in one pull up and a big regular diaper over that, plus a “starter” outfit just for the car that I can change him out of once we’ve reached our destination because there’s an 85% he’ll be soaked by the time we’ve reached our destination.
Always have back up clothes for EVERY CHILD in the car (and possibly yourself if you’ve got a newborn that likes to throw up a lot) as well as extra diapers, wipes, and band aids.
Teach your older kids how to strap themselves in and get themselves out. I dare to say this is life changing.
Going to the store will be a chore
Gone are the days of running into the store for a carton of milk. Once you have a baby, it’s not so easy to just run into the store. First of all, you have to time it right. Naps are crucial for babies and toddlers and you will not want to drive all the way to the store just to find a sleeping 2 year old when you get there. (When they’re still a baby they can stay in the car seat and go in the stroller if they can sleep through the noise.)
Some stores have more kid-friendly carts than others. I personally like Aldi, Costco, and Target the best because I can actually fit at least two kids in the carts. Parking lots are another thing you will develop a preference for once you become a mother. If I have to park a mile away and the carts are never available in the lot and people are speeding at 50 miles per hour on a regular basis, you can bet I’m not shopping there.
When I go shopping with all 4 kids (which is kind of rare these days) I have a system. I scope out the cart situation before I get the kids out of the car. If there’s one available nearby I grab that, then I let the older kids out of the car first (they can undo their own booster seats now) then I get Henry out and put him in the cart, then Teddy after him. (Teddy is the most likely to try to jump out of the cart if I turn around for a second so he gets out last.) If there’s no cart in the parking lot I have the girls and Henry hold hands and I hold the baby until we get in the store.
Once we’re in the store, short and sweet is the name of the game. Kids are like ticking time bombs in a store. They want to climb out of the cart (the belts rarely ever keep them strapped in for very long), they want to grab everything off the shelves, they want to whine for everything they can’t have, and they want to fight with each other in the middle of the aisles.
I like to do all of my errands in the morning, right after the kids have had breakfast. That gives me enough time before the boys need to nap. I also find they are in better moods in the beginning of the day. Once they’re cranky and tired shopping becomes horrendous. Plus, stores are usually less crowded in the morning which makes it easier to navigate with the gang.
Avoid going past the toy aisle for obvious reasons.
Make a list of what you need before you go. Trying to remember every ingredient you need to make dinner while watching the kids is almost impossible.
Shop online. Amazon Prime is amazing. Lila needs a birthday gift for a party this coming weekend? Prime. Need more socks for the boys? Prime. There’s not much you cannot get on Amazon prime these days. And grocery delivery is freaking awesome. I did this a lot when Teddy was still a baby. I’ve used Shipt and Instacart and liked them both.
Imagine trying to breastfeed your fussy newborn while your toddler pulls tissue after tissue out of a box, letting them fly up above her head and land gracefully all over the nursery floor. That was what I was doing one night after Violet was born. Out of total desperation, I closed the door, handed Lila a tissue box and said go to town so I could sit with my baby in peace. (Toys are not as exciting as something as taboo as a tissue box.) When you have a newborn AND older children, you do what you gotta do.
Breastfeeding is hard enough with your first baby. But that’s a post for another day. Breastfeeding while you have other children at home can be particularly challenging. Most babies want their mothers’ total attention in the first few months and they need a lot of quiet time to nurse and nap. This can feel almost impossible with other children in the house who love to yell, cry, beg, and fight for their mothers’ attention.
I don’t have much practical advice for this stage besides do what you can to distract your older child or children (dare I say screen time?), ask for help from family and friends, and know that this phase will not last forever. As exhausting as it can be, breastfeeding has overall been a great experience for me because it’s allowed me to bond with my babies. It’s also the primary way I have soothed my babies and actually gotten some sleep. Which leads me to my next point…
Bedtime and the struggle for sleep
I’m sure you’ve heard about how hard it is to get sleep after you have a baby. But maybe you’re wondering why.
Babies are not programmed to wake up in the morning and sleep all night. They basically eat, sleep, repeat for the first few months of their lives. They don’t really care if it’s 2 am and you’re exhausted. If they’re hungry, they’re hungry! Plus, there’s all kinds of things that can make babies fussy. They might have reflux or have a cold that makes it hard for them to eat, or they might have colic.
As babies get older they sleep more but it’s definitely not easy. They start teething and wake up in pain at night, or maybe they want to nurse for comfort and the second you try to walk away they wake up. (That’s what all of my babies did, anyway!)
Then there’s room sharing for multiple kids. Getting babies and kids of different ages asleep in the same room is a huge feat. At one point we had 3 kids in the same room. I had to tuck the girls in their bunk bed and then sit down next to Henry’s crib and sing to him until they all fell asleep. Sounds wonderfully cozy right? Well, most nights the girls were getting out of their beds every other minute, making excuses to go to the bathroom or get some water, sometimes waking Henry up just after he had finally nodded off and I had to start all over again. It was brutal.
After having 4 babies I can actually say that I have found the best method that works for us at bed time. It finally clicked after I was diagnosed with Postpartum anxiety (which you can read more about here.) Basically, I had to take care of myself better which meant loosen up on some things that I had been latching on to as universal parenting truths. I thought that if my baby didn’t sleep in his crib all night I was a terrible mother. I felt ashamed to admit that I co-slept with all of my babies, or that I nursed them all in bed for the first 8 months of their lives.
After feeling terribly sick and exhausted from my daily anxiety, I realized that I was trying to push something that wasn’t a good fit and ultimately turned me into a monster at night because I was so incredibly stressed out from trying to get everyone to sleep in their beds at an exact time.
We decided to skip the crib for Teddy completely and put him in a twin sized bed. (We use this bed rail to make sure he doesn’t fall.) This way, I can lay down and nurse him to sleep and then go to sleep in my own bed. It might sound a little crazy, but it’s what works for us and I get way more sleep because of it.
It’s not for every baby, but most LOVE to sleep in swings like this one. 3 of my 4 babies slept in them for the first 4 months or so.
I’m also a huge fan of swaddling babies in these. They’re so easy to use and I found that my babies always slept better when they were all wrapped up.
Bed time is not a one size fits all. What works for other families might not work for you and that’s ok.
Do what you need to get sleep. Sleep has such a huge effect on our mental health, which I learned the hard way. If co-sleeping works for you and you get more sleep, do it. That may not be the most popular advice but I truly believe it is natural for mothers to sleep next to their babies.
Routines are really helpful for everyone, even adults. We need to signal to our bodies that it’s bed time. I try to give my kids a bath or shower, have them brush their teeth, and then go upstairs and read a bit before bed every night. The more you normalize the routine the more they will accept that it is bedtime and it’s time to go to sleep.
Try to stay calm at night. (Easier said than done, I know.) This is another thing I’ve learned the hard way. It’s so easy to get frustrated and angry at night when your kids won’t go to bed. The thing is, they’re tired too. Emotions can run high and before you know it you’re both in tears. It’s not easy, but I’ve found that when I stay calm they settle down so much faster.
It’s a 24/7 job with no days off
Motherhood is not for the faint of heart. Raising little kids is the most grueling, challenging, back-breaking work I’ve ever done. As a stay at home mom, I don’t get a lunch break or even a bathroom break. (I very rarely get to use the bathroom completely by myself. I’ve even started putting Teddy in the shower with me!)
Even when you are not with your children, your job isn’t over. Most mothers are taking care of some aspect of their children’s lives even when they are not with them…making appointments, hiring a sitter, making plans, or just worrying about them. (I know worrying is unnecessary and not a job but I’m just being honest here.)
I love getting to stay home with my children but I’m human. There’s many times I wish I could hit pause and sit back and watch some TV by myself or get some chores done without the kids in the way or even write for my blog! (I hear Henry waking upstairs as we speak. It’s taken me four days to finish writing this post because it’s very hard to find time when I am not with the kids or too exhausted to do anything!) I do have a ton of help from my family and I am so grateful for that. I encourage all moms to accept help from family or friends when they can.
I know how hard it is to make time for yourself when you have little kids, but make it a priority. I struggle with this a lot myself but I find that when I do make the time I am much more patient with my kids and can enjoy the time with them more too.
Take shortcuts where you can. There’s no medals for doing everything perfectly or everything looking a certain way. For example, if I know we’re just going to my parent’s house for dinner and the kids don’t want to put their shoes on, who cares? I don’t start a fight over something that doesn’t really matter. (If you’re wondering how hard it can be to get shoes on kids try doing it four times in a row and let me know how it goes.) Some may say I’m not disciplining enough but I say I’m letting them be kids. I put my foot down when it matters. (Lila has never gone to school barefoot!)
Don’t overdo it. My kids are not signed up for a million activities. We actually just booked our first vacation since Lila was born. We don’t plan a ton of things to do with the kids, partly because of Andy’s work schedule but also because we keep very busy seeing family. I don’t like feeling overwhelmed with stuff to do besides keeping everyone fed and happy.
Is any of this new information for you? What do you wish someone told you before you had kids? What practical advice would you share to new parents?