I grew up the oldest of five, so I knew all there was to know about mothering. I’d seen infancy. I lived all of my formative years watching (and helping, and “helping”) my mother take care of babies. I spent my teenage years babysitting and working at camp and serving in the church nursery and various kids’ programs. I actually (annoyingly) read parenting books of all kinds well before any children arrived—I had this parenting thing NAILED DOWN. I was one of the last in my circle to have babies (I was a whopping 28), but no matter—I could talk parenting theory with great authority and depth.
And then I had my first baby, Jenna.
Usually, this would be the part of the story where we all chuckle together at how wrong I was and how I embarrassed myself with my know-it-all pre-kid attitude. But instead, Jenna reinforced everything. She didn’t throw me off. I remember looking around thinking, “Man, all my friends had this really difficult initiation into motherhood. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.” I’m not proud of it, but there it is. A persnickety nap schedule was my only hint I didn’t have it all under control—and maybe not everything was mine to control—otherwise, I pretty much had the whole situation managed.
I had it so managed, we decided immediately to have another. It took me a few months to get pregnant, but by the time Jenna was 8 months old, the tiny beginning of Katherine was starting to grow.
I was confident whatever made parenting Jenna so straightforward—whether luck or good genes or experience or education or expertise—would carry forward. Better still, I’d been mothering a baby, so adding another about when the first was exiting babyhood would probably be pretty seamless.
Katherine arrived on cue when Jenna was 17 months old, and everything went perfectly. During the first week, the grandparents and aunties took Jenna out most days so my husband and I could rest and bond with the new tiny one. I’d very wisely made about ten million freezer meals when I was 37 weeks pregnant, so even once my people stopped trading me food for a whiff of fresh baby smell, I had meals handled.
Then my husband went back to work.
And now we can laugh at the hubris of twenty-nine-year-old Robin. Bless her, that girl was naïve and in for a surprise.
Suddenly I had a toddler who could find mischief anywhere and a newborn with immediate needs and only one me to handle it all. My sudden insufficiency felt shocking and offensive.
One morning when Katherine was maybe a couple weeks old, I’d taken them out for groceries, mostly to prove to myself I could. (Also to get necessities, but really, my husband could have gotten those.) It took longer than I expected. When I got home, both of them were hungry and in need of naps and VERY upset about it.
I walked up a flight and a half of stairs carrying a toddler on my left hip, a baby in a carrier in the crook of my right arm, a giant diaper bag over my right shoulder, two gallons of milk in my right hand, and several grocery bags hanging from both wrists and forearms. So much for the midwives’ lifting restrictions… with two tired, hungry babies, I honestly couldn’t find another way forward. If I brought just the children up, I’d have to leave them alone and hollering to get the groceries. If I left them strapped in while I ran groceries up, I would be leaving my children alone in a car which probably violated some law.
I arrived in my living room with one hundred pounds of groceries and two screaming tiny humans. I set everything down as gently as I could, given the awkwardness of my load, and looked at the girls. My brain glitched at the urgency of the competing needs and I froze for a moment, absolutely unable to process my next move.
Katherine needs to be nursed, like half an hour ago. But that process will take me 40 minutes. Jenna needs to eat and go to bed. I can’t do both right now, but they both need me to do it right now.
And then, a gift: Just pick one need and meet it.
It seems obvious now. Maybe it shouldn’t have felt like such a revelation. But I grabbed on and didn’t let go—it’s sustained me for now seven years. Meet one need at a time. Repeat until nobody is crying. Don’t forget to include your own needs.
I spent two minutes heating and cutting up a hot dog, putting it on a plate with some frozen blueberries for Jenna, and going to the bathroom. Katherine was wailing and rooting frantically in my arms through it all, but it was only maybe five minutes before we were settled in the recliner and she was eating, ravenous and relieved.
Those two baby girls are now seven and eight and behind them is another pair, ages three and four. I am no longer shocked or offended when I’m confronted with an abundance of immediate needs. I am also no longer bothered by leaving babies strapped in while I haul groceries into the house. And maybe grab a quick cup of coffee in my quiet house. I can see them out the front window, and I’m not breaking any laws in my state (I checked). I still freeze sometimes when the needs are numerous and noisy, but it’s a familiar glitch, a funny little hiccup of my quirky brain, and it doesn’t bother me like it did that first time. Good thing, too, because it’s sometimes a several-times-daily issue.
I wouldn’t say I have it managed now. I’ve mostly forgotten the thousands of pages of sage parenting wisdom I read before Jenna was born, so I arguably know less about how to mother my children now than I did at 28.
The books aren’t bad—I’ve read several parenting books this year—they’re just limited. In retrospect, I believed learning would protect me from surprise and difficulty, but I’m better off studying my children and my life, learning obvious gems like “meet one need at a time” rather than trying to cram for some nonexistent parenting test. What replaced the knowledge is invaluable: confident intuition paired with good resources is better than thousands of pages of parenting advice.
Robin Chapman is a full-time imperfect Jesus lover, wife to a ridiculously good-looking husband, and homeschooling mama to four babies, ages three to eight. When she isn’t buried in children or hiding from them, she enjoys reading, photography, and sharing stories on her blog, where she’d love to connect with you! You can also find her on Facebook or Instagram… or perhaps holed up in her bathroom with some coffee.