Why do people keep telling me how hard parenting is while I’m pregnant?

The other day when I was at the nail salon, one of the managers came up to me after spotting my ‘baby on board’ badge as I walked in. 

She wanted to congratulate me, which was very sweet. After generously doing so, and going through the usual script with expectant mothers — ‘How far along?’ ‘How are you feeling?’ — the conversation took a different turn. 

Well-meaning, I’m sure, this relative stranger (we’d never met before) began to tell me how horrendous childbirth was going to be, and to make the most of my life now because it would soon be over (her words, not mine). 

I felt uncomfortable, not least because I had only just managed to get past the sickness and intense emotions of the first trimester and was feeling optimistic about what was to come. And though I tried to change the subject, the conversation went on like this for far longer than I felt comfortable with.

I left the salon feeling intensely anxious. Why had I assumed that I or we could do this parenting thing? Had we made a huge mistake? What if we didn’t like it? There was no turning back now. 

In that instance, a pretty strong intervention from my best friend and my partner set me back on a positive course with relative ease – they reminded me how much joy was ahead and how much I wanted this.

But the whole exchange made me think about how we talk about parenting as an undertaking – both to those who don’t have children and may want them, and those who are already well on their way.

There has been a great movement in recent years — and particularly by virtue of Instagram — to try to deromanticise parenting, and open up important conversations about the struggles some parents face, be they structural or individual. But has it gone too far?

Before that time, the old adage of a child being a ‘gift’ prevented parents from talking about any difficulties they may have with the whole experience, with the potential of a having a pernicious impact on their mental health. In particular, this culture of silence made the experience of postnatal depression and other mental illnesses even harder to bear for many. 

If parenting was such a glorious experience for everyone else, then why was it so hard for them? What were they doing wrong?

In this respect, efforts to be much more honest about the emotional obstacles presented by parenting have made a great contribution to the reduction of shame and stigma attached to those experiencing anything other than sheer bliss after the birth of a child. They have also made it much easier for those struggling to find the vocabulary to speak about their experiences — although, as ever, there is still a long way to go in this regard.

The problem is that I am aware – now even more painfully so – of how difficult it will all be, to the point of feeling anxious about it

As someone who has always known they wanted kids, my main anxiety until a couple of years ago was that I wouldn’t be able to have them because of my seemingly perpetual inability to find a good partner. I know I’m very fortunate that this is no longer the case. 

Falling in love with a very good and kind person — who I am certain will make a fantastic father — has been the best experience of my life. The decision for us to start a family felt easy; we both wanted children and weren’t particularly fussed about waiting.

Being 32 when we met, we were both very sure of ourselves and what we wanted, and felt excited to get started.

As far as I can tell, my pregnancy so far has been fairly normal – difficult at times, but manageable. I know I’m lucky in this respect. Yes, there was sickness, there were intense emotions, there were sleepless nights and lots of tears. But overall, our experience of the process has been overwhelmingly positive; we are so excited and just can’t wait to meet our little one. 

There’s just one thing that keeps getting in the way…

Many extremely well-meaning people we both know and don’t know are queuing up to tell us (and especially me on social media) about all of the ‘grim realities’ of parenting… all the time. It can often feel overwhelming.

No sleep, no personal time, no more personal identity away from your kids, no respite, no sex… no joy.

I understand their motives; they don’t want us to be caught unaware and profoundly disappointed by the experience, assuming we are expecting only sunshine and butterflies. I can also hear their own struggles in their words, and don’t want to undermine those experiences at all. 

The problem is that I am aware — now even more painfully so — of how difficult it will all be, to the point of feeling pretty anxious about it. 

The glut of advice about everything from sleep to feeding and emotional management can also feel completely overwhelming when we’re speaking about a person I haven’t even met yet. 

Discussing my baby’s sleep habits when I have literally no idea what kind of sleeper they’ll be, feels completely theoretical. I sometimes feel like I’m bracing for a kid that is difficult in every single aspect of their development: won’t sleep, won’t eat, won’t stop crying.

And while I understand the hardships parents go through with these experiences, the trouble is that I have no idea what our reality will be.

The negative impact of this scaremongering is also felt by those who aren’t pregnant.

So, the other day, as an antidote to the doom I was feeling about our growing little person, I asked the parents of Twitter what they loved about having children. 

I was overwhelmed by the positive responses, which genuinely touched me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Parents queued up to tell anecdotes about their wonderful little people and to share all of their joy at things small and big – like seeing their kids laugh or watching them learn how to do things for the first time.

I can’t quite articulate how much I needed to read all of these responses. I enjoyed the experience so much that I sent the thread to every pregnant person and parent I know. 

But I also sent it to friends who want to have kids who have expressed a profound fear that is holding them back from starting a family — a fear caused by all of the negative press the experience gets predominantly on social media.

My DMs were soon flooded by those who were either pregnant – or wanted to be – who shared that they also needed to read some positivity about parenting, and that a lot of the awareness-raising of the past few years had left them feeling like the upsides to parenting were by far outweighed by the downsides. 

One said they had cried reading it, as all of the doom surrounding parenting had made them and their partner reconsider having a family altogether.

I am by no means advocating for us to stop discussing the challenges of parenting — that would not help anyone at all. But I do fear that in our efforts to peel the glitter off the experience and make people more informed about what to expect, we may have swung too far in the other direction and be proactively putting them off or scaring them.

We need to find a middle ground, where we can be honest about the kaleidoscope of experiences that raising humans entails — and that includes good as well as bad. If not, I worry that we may be putting off those who really want children from having them.

At the same time, I am profoundly grateful to be having a child at a time when there is less pressure on parents to ‘enjoy every single moment’.

Ultimately, I have no idea what it’ll be like to be a parent, but reading these responses and speaking honestly with those in my life about their experiences has left me feeling much more sanguine. 

I am prepared for there to be hard times, but I’m also prepared for an abundance of joy, and I think that the potential for both of these things to be possible at the same time is important to remember.

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