Blinded by the expectations of parenthood?

Is it ever possible to be properly prepared for parenthood, asks Sarah Cameron.

“Gotta go – can’t talk now – Emily’s screaming again. Honestly, she’s SO relentless!” That was the last line of an email I received recently from my sister, Nikki, who was talking about her three-month-old daughter. Nikki lives in London, and because of the time difference, we tend to chat via email rather than over the phone. But, lately, all of Nikki’s emails have had a similar tone. Emily – her first child – is “absolutely gorgeous, but a lot of work”. Emily has beautiful blue eyes and a tendency to require changing approximately every 15 minutes. Emily is always hungry.

Emily, Nikki writes, in both wonder and despair, needs Nikki morning, noon and night.

The funny thing – to me, at least – is that my sister is a very experienced, competent and highly qualified paediatrician. She’s the last person in the world I would have expected to be taken aback by the demands of a newborn, yet she is.

illo Simon RattrayAt an appointment for Emily’s first immunisations, Nikki told me, the nurse asked her if she’d been surprised by anything about motherhood. “Well,” Nikki apparently replied, after giving it some thought, “I’m surprised by how often I find myself going to the cupboard and looking longingly at the bottle of gin.” So far, I believe she’s resisted pouring it straight down her throat, but I’m sure there are many who would sympathise.

My mother once confessed to me that she found her first months of parenting “incredibly tough. I thought that you’d just lie in your cot and sleep or coo, and that you’d always smell like milk and baby powder.”

When pregnant with my first child, I assumed that having children wouldn’t alter my life. I was organised and efficient—why shouldn’t they just fit in? When quizzed, my husband admitted that once our son was born, his sole expectation of fatherhood had been that he’d always have someone with whom to go to the footy.

None of those scenarios eventuated. I didn’t, apparently, always smell like baby powder. Having children has well and truly changed my life, though at times I’ve fought that kicking and screaming, and our son would much prefer to stay home and work on his latest collage than go and watch sports with Daddy.

Sometimes, things just don’t go as planned.

Actually, a lot of the time, that’s the case. Parenthood can be a bit like getting married: extremely thrilling in the planning/pregnancy stages, not so exciting once you’ve arrived home from the honeymoon or the hospital suddenly realise that there are now years and years of unrelenting demands and extra washing ahead of you.

To be honest, my expectations of having children—beyond fitting them into my schedule—were fairly fuzzy, but there was one thing I was clear about: I assumed that, like getting married, they’d complete my life, make me delirious with joy, and fulfil me as a person. That was what was supposed to happen, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that why people had children? I anticipated nothing less than my own personal and unequivocal ‘happily ever after’.

Yet that’s not what happened, of course. Over the last decade, I have found that there are many, many aspects of parenting I hadn’t really thought about and would gladly give up: the tyranny of school lunches, for a start; the unending domestic tedium of keeping a family clothed, clean and fed; the fact that my house is no longer the pristine shrine to minimalism it once was.

Then, there is the ongoing low-level anxiety I seem to experience. Did we choose the right school? Could I be a better parent? I hadn’t anticipated the ever-increasing cost of raising children or the fact that many aspects of child-rearing are boring at best and I-will-swallow-my-own-tongue-rather-than-read-Go-Dog-Go-one-more-time deathly tedious at worst. I didn’t know what a royally botched c-section (Child A) and a bloody great big baby (Child B) would do to my once-taut stomach. I hadn’t thought about the interruption to my professional life or the guilt I would sometimes feel at trying to juggle a family and a career.

I certainly never dreamed I’d have days when I felt so desperate for some uninterrupted time to myself that I could find myself wishing my children had never been born – or at least that they would just go away for a bit.

Parenthood is not exactly as I expected.

It’s better, and it’s worse, and there’s not a thing I can do about that except shelve my expectations and get on with the job. Happily, ever afters are fiction. I thought parenthood was a box I would tick once my children were born, but I realise now that I am going to spend the rest of my life in this tug-of-war of love and frustration, of despair and delight in them – and them with me. Sometimes, that’s an exhausting thought, but it’s also exhilarating. The predictable can often become prosaic; the books and movies I enjoy the most are never the ones where I can tell from the outset what’s going to happen.

“Expect nothing,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. Live… on surprise.” It’s good advice, though maybe keep the gin bottle handy, too.

Illustration by Simon Rattray