Raising a child is full of surprises. No matter how many books, parenting forums and articles you read, nothing can completely prepare you for becoming a parent. If I could go back to before my daughter was born and tell myself what I didn't know I would experience, this is what I would say.
1. Making a baby isn't as easy as it sounds
Some people are able to reproduce as easily as bunnies. For others, that's not always the case. Before I got pregnant, I naively thought that whenever I wanted to have a child, my husband and I would just have sex every day for a month and - bam - that would be it. The human body doesn't really work that way.
So if you're thinking of having a child someday and want to plan the pregnancy for a certain time period, consider giving yourself some extra time and try not to stress out about the whole thing. A great book on this subject is Taking Charge of Your Fertility. (It's also awesome even if you just want to know more about the female body.)
2. The first few months are pure torture
I sometimes think babies' cries are so grating, their sleep so erratic and breastfeeding so painful just to harden up parents. If you can survive the first few months of Baby Boot Camp without losing your mind, you can survive anything - you're like a superhero. Because, really, the first few months are hell if you enjoy sleeping, showering and functioning well.
Others told me it was hard. But it's impossible to truly convey just what it's like to wake up at night every two hours for several months. Or try to calm a baby who's screaming inconsolably. Or deal with your body now being three sizes bigger than it used to be (graciously, this happens to dads as well as mums). Or struggle with not feeling like yourself for not just months but maybe even years.
However, you will get through it. (Just don't be afraid to ask for help, especially if you suffer from post-natal depression.) There are blissful, amazing moments during that period too. After enough time passes, you might even think back wistfully on this period and even be crazy enough to go through that torture again.
3. You will lose (and sorely miss) sleep
Even past the infant and toddler stages, you might have sleep issues. Middle-of-the-night nightmares, kids sleeping between you and your significant other, difficulty getting them up in time for school and so on.
I think it gets better (my daughter is seven and still climbs into our bed at night). I've asked fellow Lifehacker editor and parent Walter Glenn for reassurance, but he's keeping awfully mum on the subject.
A word to the wise: Don't start a sleep or night time habit (like letting your kid into your bed in the middle of the night) you don't want to continue until your child graduates from high school.
4. You don't need a lot of baby stuff or clothes
Strollers, car seats, playpens, swings, bouncy chairs, play mats, sleep hammocks, teething rings, bibs, burp cloths... babies seemingly need a lot of accoutrements. Let me save you a lot of money: you don't need even half of those things.
Many new parents fear their babies will get bored or will need constant stimulation to develop stellar baby brains, but the truth is infants just sleep, wake up and cry to be fed, then fall asleep after being fed. You don't need multiple, endless ways to occupy them even when they've started toddling, because everything is entertaining to a young child. (It's also why baby-proofing is important.) Also, kids tend to discard new toys quicker than it took you to look for and buy them. I have a garage full of baby distractions and stuffed animals (the bane of my existence) just waiting for a garage sale. To this day, I'm thinking, why didn't I just buy blocks or make toys out of toilet paper rolls.
Similarly, I wish I hadn't bought so many baby clothes - at least new ones. For one thing, family and friends love to gift adorable outfits (who can resist buying tiny shoes, even if the baby can't stand up?). For another, kids grow like weeds, so some outfits are barely even worn before they no longer fit. If I could do it over again, I probably would have bought only on-sale or used clothes, enough to last two weeks of laundry. Of course, if your kid gets dirty a lot, you might have to buy more clothes, but wait until you know before hitting up the kids clothing department.
5. Children rack up a lot of surprise costs
There is one thing you will need a lot of in the first few years: nappies. A whole lot of nappies. You know that already, but you're probably still underestimating how many nappies you'll end up buying (or washing, if you go the cloth route). Nappy services and any opportunity to save money with vouchers or special offers should be considered seriously.
Other expenses will seem to come out of the blue over the course of your child's life. Music lessons, for example, cost a couple of hundred dollars a month. School excursions, babysitting, and even medicine and medical fees can take you by surprise. Perhaps the biggest shocker is the extraordinary cost of daycare. (It's like you need to take a second job to pay for the daycare that lets you work your first job.) So spend less on baby gear and keep in mind these unexpected (or unexpectedly high) costs that really add up.
6. You can work from home with a child (but only up to a point)
There are two periods of your children's lives when working from home with them is a breeze: Before they're walking (when they can entertain themselves by discovering their toes) and after they're old enough to understand that when you're working from home, you're really not available. If your kid is good at entertaining himself or herself, working from home is easy, but it might still give you pangs of guilt when your attention is divided. It's hard for parents to say "No, I'm busy now" several times a day.
So even if you're lucky enough to get to work from home, you should plan on getting childcare help once your child is old enough to demand your complete and undivided attention.
7. Don't worry if your child isn't reaching development milestones
My daughter didn't start walking until she was 13 months old - about the time some baby books said I would need to consult a doctor if she wasn't walking by then. So of course I stressed about it. She was also in pull-up nappies longer than other kids in her daycare (a stranger even once remarked to me in a public bathroom that she was too old for nappies. Yeah, rude parenting advice from random strangers is also a thing you'll have to get used to). So of course I stressed about it.
Looking back, I accept each kid develops in his or her own time. All that time my daughter wasn't learning how to walk, she was using her energy to learn how to speak.
So try not to rush getting your child to talk, walk, run or read. They grow up all too fast anyway. (By the way, I tried that "teach your kid to be toilet trained in one day" mythical method, and it totally backfired. I should have just waited until she was obviously ready.)
8. You can never take too many pictures or videos
In the first few years, you're probably going to constantly take pictures and videos. Sadly, that falls off as you and your kid get older. You will never regret having too many pictures of your rapidly growing child though, so it's something to watch out for.
It also helps if you develop a habit of organising your photos and videos soon after you take them. Otherwise, you'll have a mess of images and videos that are as daunting as the thousands of emails you have in your inbox.
Most importantly, backup, backup and backup your photos and videos, both locally and offsite. Those files are probably the most precious ones to save.
9. Going out - anywhere - will never be the same
Once you become a parent, time shifts. What used to be a five-minute run to the store will now take 45 minutes to account for bundling, dawdling, snack-packing, car-seat-fiddling and other extra steps.
Eating out is also a whole new experience. There are crumbs on the floor to feel guilty about, crayons to keep from rolling off the table and angry-looking fellow diners (at least in your mind) to deal with. And if you manage to get out for a date night alone with your significant other, you'll probably spend all of the time talking or worrying about your child.
10. You will never be the same
Parenting changes you. I expected this, but I didn't expect just how radical that change would be. It's not like you turn into your mum or dad overnight, but your values, perspective and habits get realigned to one single creature: your child (or your children, if you have more than one).
It also means
- your habits might change for the better. You'll think more about the nutritional value of your food, driving safely, spending money more wisely, living longer and exemplifying good ethics.
- poop will no longer be taboo (if it ever was). Oh, the poop stories you will be able to tell when you're a parent.
- your relationship with your partner will change. You can't really know until it happens whether it's for better or worse, but parenting changes the other person too, and how you look at him/her.
- you may have to part with previous entertainment choices. (Play video games and watch TV? Sure, but now it's My Little Pony/Voltron.)
- you will never take free time for granted again.
- you might actually have more fun and become more creative. (Inventing dog costumes, drawing on the footpath and trying new ways to make peas appealing weren't on my to-do list before.)
- you will likely experience a love and a bond that you never could have imagined.
Finally, just one last thing to know: None of the negative stuff on this list - as terrible and messy as they sound - will really bother you in the long run. You'll discover many new things about yourself as a parent - things that make you stronger, and things that will make you more vulnerable in a sense too. Author Elizabeth Stone made this terribly true observation: "Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body." I think most parents would agree that it is so, so worth it.