I used to say that my first child was born 5 years too early. My husband and I had just gotten engaged when we found out I was pregnant. I was in my second year of graduate school and expecting to have my PhD within the next 3 years, followed by our wedding and a couple of years of child-free newlywed bliss. But plans change, and we were so excited to become parents even if we weren’t quite ready. When our son was born, we were shocked that the hospital was just going to let us go home with this baby. They’re just going to let us leave? With a baby? We had no clue what we were doing, but we were so in love with him.
I had planned on returning to my studies after my 3-month paid maternity leave, which I did for about 2 weeks. I absolutely hated it. I missed my baby boy so much and felt so guilty leaving him at such a young age. The fact that new parents are not given sufficient bonding time with their new baby without risking financial collapse is a national tragedy and something I will never understand about this country. I had to decide between my measly graduate stipend and finishing my degree on time or being with my son. I chose him because I could, and it breaks my heart that not all parents have that privilege.
I finally resumed my studies after my son was about 9 months old. It was definitely easier than when he was a newborn, but it still felt very different from my pre-baby days. One thing they don’t tell new parents is the complete shift in identity that happens after becoming a parent. Before my son was born, I was a motivated, ambitious, hard-working scientist in training. That all changed when I became a mom. Nothing else mattered to me anymore. But while I was fully enjoying my new role as a mother, I was simultaneously mourning the loss of my previous identity. A whole new type of guilt started plaguing me; was I betraying myself by not caring about my education and career as much as I should?
My second pregnancy was also a surprise, as my husband and I had just agreed to wait until I finished school to have another baby. But we were thrilled nonetheless and had our second son 7 years into my graduate program. At this point my classes and research were finished and all that was left was writing and defending my dissertation. Then the anxiety started. I felt the crushing weight of the responsibility of writing this massive paper hanging over my head every second of the day. We were struggling financially as funding for my stipend ended and we had to live on just my husband’s income. I started to panic about every little thing having to do with the baby. I checked on him while he slept every 10 minutes. I obsessed over being the perfect parent and doing things “the right way.” My anxiety manifested as outbursts of anger coupled with depressive episodes. I had been in therapy for a few years, but I eventually made the decision to try medication again (my teenage years were…interesting).
While the medication helped, I was still triggered by my boys far too often. Another thing they don’t tell you is how your children will hold a mirror up to your worst qualities. I saw my short fuse, lack of patience, need for control and more reflected back at me. This led me to use my research acumen to learn more about child development and respectful parenting. I read/listened to several books, audiobooks, and podcasts. I joined multiple respectful parenting Facebook groups. I signed up for a respectful parenting course. I learned all about brain development and how a child’s underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex leads to poor impulse control. I started to temper my expectations of what they were behaviorally capable of doing. I learned about the importance of sleep on brain development and made that a priority in our house. I learned about my own brain and how my triggers were created from things I experienced in my own childhood. I grew as a human being because my children showed me my worst self and forced me to improve.
With my mental health under control and feeling more confident as a parent, I pushed along with writing my dissertation and then surprise! I got pregnant. Again, I was overjoyed to be having another baby, a little girl this time. But this pregnancy was the hardest yet and I was constantly tired, irritated, depressed, anxious, in pain, and all around not doing well. The crushing guilt and shame of not finishing school came back as I stopped writing and starting napping. I felt like a failure and secretly thought I would probably end up quitting. Some days I did come close to quitting. I could forget all about school and a career and just be a mom. But I kept going out of sheer stubbornness and unwillingness to give up on what I started. I defended my dissertation and got my doctorate when my daughter was 8 months old. It took over 10 years for me to finish graduate school, and I’m not the least bit bothered by it. I made 3 people. I got married. I made a family with the man I love.
I don’t think my first child was born 5 years too early anymore. I think I got to learn who I am and become a better person before I was ready to start my career. I am so much more prepared to start this chapter of my life now that I am a mother, and I’m so thankful for my children for showing me that I can choose to be better.
Never forget- we can do hard things.