By Katie Kurtin, M.Ed.
It’s hard to fully capture the transformation from the person I was before I gave birth into the mama of a 6-month-old infant that I am now. Labor and birth was a grueling initiation ceremony into this new season of parenthood. Sometimes, I miss that childless person, the flexibility to be spontaneous, the freedom to stay in bed all day, and the energy to read more than one chapter of a book.
My ‘pre-self’ would be in awe of this version of me. The strength, sacrifice, love and growth that each new day brings now is something I would not trade for anything. Two people were born that early September morning – my son Teddy and me as Teddy’s mama.
I recently left the kindergarten classroom to be a full-time parent to Teddy. I have nearly 15 years of experience as an early childhood educator, hold two degrees, participated in thousands of hours of professional development, and read pages and pages of parenting and child development books. Yet, bringing home our first child still brought me to my knees.
Becoming a parent is an emotional identity shift that you can never truly prepare for. It has brought out every emotion in me. It is a life-altering transition for all parents. We never go back to that ‘before’ life. I wish more people talked about those first few months home with a newborn to help normalize the struggle within the miracle – the exhaustion, the confusion of each new stage, the fleetingness of every moment, the deep connection. Each moment feels so fast and so slow at the same time. I finally understand why people say, “Blink and you miss it.”
Parenting isn’t binary – it’s hardly ever this or that. There is no step-by-step guide to raising a wholehearted, community-oriented human. Parenting isn’t a journey towards perfection or earning your ‘#1 Parent’ mug. It’s an experiment and a rich, humbling journey. Even with the experience and expertise that I hold as a professional educator, I am still constantly learning as a parent.
I find myself reflecting, “What if I retrain myself to soften into a child’s world and way of being? How do I do that without also losing my sense of self entirely?” This has been the delicate dance of new parenthood for me.
As I wonder how to approach this journey with a beginner’s mind, I am reminded of a few things I’ve learned along the way.
- All behavior is communication. From the moment a child is born, they’re equipped with the ability to signal you to get their needs met. When Teddy was a newborn, his communication was mostly crying. I heard all the talk of the ‘different cries’, but I found myself unable to differentiate his cries until he was closer to 4 months old. Babies are humans with very normal needs. Often, we over-complicate, over-analyze, over-stigmatize normal child behavior and forget to truly listen to what the child is asking of us. It took some time of trial and error before I could quiet myself enough to hear what Teddy was asking of me. As he grows, so do his needs, wants, and interests. This causes me to constantly shift and learn his communication cues and stay attuned – or harmonized – with my baby. It takes time, practice, patience, and focus.
- Child development isn’t always linear. One of the hardest parts of becoming a parent for me has been learning to trust my intuition. This has meant night parenting, nursing to sleep, co-sleeping sometimes, baby-led eating, and trusting that Teddy knows his needs and body best. My job is to keep him safe, listen, let go of trying to control him and the situation, and be as present as possible. It’s a 24/7 job. He spent the majority of his infancy in the 20th percentile for weight, which is something I found myself so worried over. It wasn’t until our lactation consultant reminded me, “As long as he is developing on his own curve, then he is healthy.” Early intervention is important, and using checklists and milestone charts can be helpful. That said, babies develop at their own pace, and that’s okay.
- Each family raises their child differently, and that’s okay. Often, the parts of parenthood we see and hear about are the happy, cute, and beautiful ones. We are not often shown the full picture and the messy, hard parts. I often have to remind myself that it’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to have different challenges than other people. It’s okay because I’m doing my best. I don’t have to have it all figured out to be the best parent for my son. Every parent and family has their own way of caring for their child. My voyage into parenthood does not have to look like anyone else’s.
- Children thrive with connection and individualized support. Humans are wired for connection and need it to thrive. There is so much pressure to ‘fix’ our infants and prevent ‘bad habits’. Sleep is a huge pressure point in infancy, but meeting your child’s individual needs is key. Spend time snuggling, holding, and nurturing your baby without worrying that you’re creating bad habits. That connection will help build their social-emotional skills.
- Investing in self-care helps keep your cup filled as a parent. My story includes four days of unmedicated laboring followed by an emergency C-section. Parenthood is not an easy transition. I’ve had to find ways to care for myself, ask for help, share the tasks and the joy with my partner, and give myself permission to not have it all together. This helps me fill my physical and emotional ‘cup’. Welcoming a new child into the family, learning a new way of doing and being, being tired and emotional, and trying to understand your new identity can shake a marriage or relationship. Communication is key. It is still a daily learning practice for me to learn that it’s okay to prioritize myself – like asking my partner, family member, or friend to care for Teddy so I can meet a friend for coffee, do yoga, write, or just be. As much as I try to stay engaged and present for him, I’m a full-time parent which means there aren’t really breaks since we’re always together. It is helpful for Teddy to see me taking care of myself and modeling balance.
My parenting journey has been a rollercoaster ride of joy, challenge, celebration, grief, connection, growth and a fair amount of bumps along the way. ‘Parent’ is now part of my identity, and I’m so grateful that Teddy is the person I get to be that to. It’s the easiest love and the hardest job I’ve ever known. I remember reading to one of my Kindergarteners about how caterpillars turn into a sort of goo inside their chrysalids before they become butterflies. I’m beginning to understand what that must be like as I too am in that ‘goo’ phase of my transformation. It’s messy and confusing, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
There’s a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit that comes to mind often these days.
“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are ‘Real’, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But, these things don’t matter at all, because once you become ‘Real’ you can’t be ugly, except to the people who don’t understand.” (Williams, 1922)
I’m not sure that we ever really get to an endpoint of our becoming as parents, but when I become ‘Real’ and I’m loose in the joints and shabby like the Velveteen Rabbit, I hope Teddy knows I did my very best to love him well. I hope my baby finds relationships that fill his heart and mind. I hope he solves problems, asks questions, wonders, reads, and plays in his lifelong learning journey. When I become ‘Real’, I hope both Teddy and I will have stayed true, honest, brave and openhearted.
Katie Kurtin (she/they) holds a master degree in teaching and teacher education. As an early childhood educator, parent and advocate, Katie’s personal and professional goal is to help create a safer, braver, more just world for all children. Katie believes that learning for a socially just world starts at birth. Katie lives on occupied Tohono O’odham land in Tucson, AZ with her husband Oscar and son, Teddy.