When I pictured myself as a mother, I tried to imagine what my voice might sound like when I catch my toddler drawing on the walls. I wondered whether my husband or I would end up as the disciplinarian. I smiled while picturing myself saying “Go ask your father” to a 7-year-old begging for a new toy.
It turns out—at least while it’s still fresh and you’ve got an infant or even a toddler at home—parenting is much more about setting and enforcing rules for yourself than for your baby. Suddenly you’re accountable to a pudgy little person who screeches in your ear at even the slightest mistakes.
So here’s the list of rules I’ve built for myself over the last year and a half. It’s made my mom life much smoother.
1. Don’t be selfish.
This one is absolutely first and most important. It’s also most difficult sometimes.
In this season of life, my family needs my time, energy, and devotion a lot more than I do. I chose these responsibilities. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I love fulfilling them. So when I’m tempted to feel bad for myself because I don’t get to do whatever I want for a whole weekend, or because we can’t just pick up and go out at the drop of a hat, or I can’t have a glass of wine with dinner, I try very hard to catch myself. What is more important: Seeing a movie on opening weekend, or breathing in some already rare cuddles with my growing-too-fast little girl?
Of course, it is critically important to set aside some time for myself each day and each week. But I do those things for family almost as much as myself. Being true to who I am and maintaining my own pastimes makes me a better, more centered wife and mother, after all.
2. Keep things tidy (and that includes yourself).
There are very few things I hate in life quite as much as laundry day. But I know—and I’ve taught myself this lesson many times—that simply ignoring a task doesn’t make it go away. My husband has his tasks, and I have mine—and it’s my responsibility to follow through on them.
Of course, it’s not just cleaning. Everything from keeping an eye on credit card spending to keeping the cars properly maintained requires consistent attention. Same goes for personal care. It’s relatively easy to maintain my health one day at a time; it’s a lot harder to circle back after a week of eating all the wrong things.
The better I am at keeping these simple duties under control, the less stressful they are—and the more time I can devote to more important things.
3. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Especially for new moms and those who stay or work at home, it can be incredibly difficult to let go and watch someone else step in and care for your child. Sixteen months later, this sharing of duties is still difficult for me some days.
For example, my husband took over the bedtime routine not too long ago. He is an amazing father; he’s the best man I could’ve asked for, for my children and myself. But I still itch to tell him exactly how to do things from time to time, despite knowing he’s quite capable of doing them his own way.
I know this is detrimental not just to my husband and other caregivers, but to me and to the baby. When I get this way, I find myself irrationally resentful of all that responsibility—even though I’ve placed it on myself. So when I step back and chastise myself for that self-centered need to see everything done my own way, and admit that I’m fortunate to share the load with some truly wonderful people, I’m a better mom (and probably a much more tolerable wife!).
4. Tell the truth.
Motherhood is overwhelming. Even when I’m not nitpicking every little thing, the sheer number of tasks and the weight of responsibility can be daunting. Add to that the hormonal implications of being shortly postpartum with a newborn (or, later, pregnant with a toddler in tow), the mood swings that come with a lack of sleep, and the frustration of just “trying things out” every time your little one hits a new stage, and there have been many times when I felt I was drowning since my daughter was born.
It’s one thing to follow Rule #3 and admit to yourself that you’ve taken on too much. But it’s quite another to admit it to someone else. That’s what I mean by “telling the truth,” and it’s something I’ve really had to practice. It’s okay to tell my husband I need extra help when he gets home. It’s okay to seek support from a mommy group. And it’s okay to pray for a little more peace when I’ve started running low.
5. Don’t raise your voice.
This isn’t a rule about discipline; it’s one about patience.
Patience is my biggest struggle as a mom. When my daughter was a newborn, the seemingly endless nursing sessions and unpredictable nighttime non-patterns would wear me thin. When she was a little older, the inexplicable crying fits or angry nap strikes would wear me down. And now that she’s a toddler, her repeated tendency to reject every dinner I make for her (and furthermore, throw it all on the floor) wears me out.
For me, being a mom is a constant effort to catch myself before I wreck myself. I have learned to smile when I want to cry. I have learned to redirect when I want to dwell. And I have learned to shut my mouth when I just want to yell. These new habits make for a much happier home life for all of us.
Though most of these rules are meant to hold me up when I’m starting to fall down, this last one is for recognizing every beautiful moment that comes with motherhood. It’s not often easy to be a mom, but it’s always an immense blessing—there is no greater joy, when you get right down to it.
So when my daughter does something funny, I laugh. When she reacts with giggles of delight to me doing some terribly embarrassing thing, I do that stupid thing again and again and I laugh right along with her. When I’m tired and want to get frustrated at something irrational she’s done, I laugh instead. And I think every one of those laughs breathes a little more life into us both, and helps solidify these perfect moments into memories.
As we all learn, adulthood replaces the simple accountabilities of following your parents’ rules with the complicated necessities of living in the real world.
Pay your bills. Get—and keep—a good job. Feed yourself nutritiously and stay active. Take sole responsibility for your behavior. Be practical. Be frugal. Be self-sufficient. Don’t screw up.
The stakes are high enough when it’s just you; they’re much higher in marriage, and they skyrocket once you become a parent.
For me, this evolution in life has brought about two very important lessons: I literally can’t do this on my own, but I have to hold myself accountable for doing my very best. And that’s what these rules are for.