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How Helping to Raise My Younger Brother Prepared Me to Be a Mom

I was 14 years old when my little brother was born. I was super excited from the beginning and we instantly had a special connection – especially in the first years when I was quite invested in his caregiving, as my father and his wife both worked. They also felt like it was time for me to take some responsibility in the family. So at least once a week I picked him up from kindergarten and spent the entire afternoon with him, not to talk of the countless evenings and weekends I babysat him.


Although I loved him very much, it was sometimes hard. There were afternoons where I wished for nothing more than to be able to hang out with my friends after school and not have to rush across town to pick him up on time. There were days when I really had to force myself to mash up his bananas (his favorite dish while I hate no food more than bananas) or change his diaper when I much rather would have read a book or watched TV.

But now that I’m a mother I’m actually very thankful for all the childcare experience I gained. And quite frankly, my daughter should thank him forever, because having cared for him made me a much more confident parent and saved her a lot of trouble.

For many first time parents having a child can be quite a shock. It’s not as easy and rosy as it’s often described. Suddenly the house looks like a dump, you can’t remember when you last showered, and eight-hour sleep is a mere dream.

And then there’s more. Mommy shaming, dealing with other parents, insecurities, fears – many parents feel they were not really prepared for all this.

There were still lots of surprises for me as a parent, but at least I felt like I kind of knew what was coming my way.

As for mommy shaming and getting judged by strangers, I was shocked by how many times people assumed I was my younger brother’s mother. Try being 16 and boarding a bus with a screaming and kicking toddler in the one arm, pulling a heavy stroller loaded with groceries in the other. I got everything from strange looks to people actually telling me that I brought this on myself for becoming a mother at such a young age.

In the first instances this happened I was shocked, but quickly I started seeing the comical side of it. Also, it didn’t hurt me so much because I felt like I actually had the right to be overstrained every once in a while. Thanks to this, when I became a mother, I was able to tell the couple who told me I was suffocating my daughter in her wraparound baby carrier to mind their own business. I felt empowered to put her into daycare at the age of one without listening to the people who told me this was irresponsible. I had a thicker skin to thanks to my experiences toting my brother around all those years ago.

My brother also taught me to trust a child. He was a wild one, always moving and exploring. Of course I told him to be careful many times and made sure nothing happened to him, but I was a teen myself and didn’t care if he got dirty (it wasn’t me who had to do his laundry after all) or got a little bruise.

I spent a lot of time with him in a gymnastics class for toddlers. It was mainly just a gym with some stations to climb and play with around 20 toddlers and their parents. There I saw for the first time the results of fearful parenting. There were so many parents who did not leave their children alone even for a second, though this was a safe environment and there was an instructor present. Those were the ones who failed to climb the smallest obstacle by themselves, were scared of everything and cried for five minutes when they only stumbled. I think most of the other parents thought I was careless, but I let my brother run free. He was always the first one to climb the highest cabinets, never complained, and had the most fun.

Now I can relate a bit better to the parents who seemed crazy careful to me at the age of 16. When my daughter climbs a tree or jumps down from high stones, I am scared. I am afraid she’ll get hurt or something might happen to her. But I saw firsthand with my brother and his friends where fearful parenting can end up, and what trusting parenting results in. So I try to hold back my, “be careful” and let her decide for herself what she wants to try. Normally she’s right on with her evaluations – because she knows herself very well – and that is how her confidence grows.

I also learned that I don’t always have to be perfect; that I can make mistakes in my caregiving but things will still be okay. I made mistakes and messed up several times, many of those stories still being told and retold at family gatherings. There was the time when I almost broke his toe because I put his shoe on incorrectly. I put a diaper on him wrong-sided, forgot to close the curtains when he slept so that he woke up at 4:30 with the sunrise, and carried him in ways that made his mother cringe sometimes. But he was fine anyway.

So when I had my own daughter, I knew I would not be the perfect mum, because there is no such thing as a perfect human being. I knew I would make mistakes; some funny, some grave, and some even harmful, but that it would still be okay.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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Sometimes it's easy to overlook this amazing work we are doing, my love. On the surface, our lives couldn't be less extraordinary. We work our jobs, we care for our children—we embody a simple life. (Though, don't get me wrong, we love every second of it!)

But especially when I think about the work you do for our family, work that largely goes unsung, I'm reminded that, really, it's my job to make sure you know how much it's appreciated.

We both came into this marriage so young, so untested, and so blissfully unaware of the hardships that would come our way through the years. As we grew up together, we weathered our own storms before finally realizing we were ready to expand from a party of two to a party of three.

You were more nervous than I was, but you stayed strong for me, making me feel stronger and shouldering my own moments of uncertainty like the hero I needed.

When our daughter was born, pink and sweet and impossibly small, I never felt safer than when I saw her in your arms. From her first breath, you were there, ready to give her the world if she asked. Your dedication to her, to me, and to this family we continue to build never wavered from that moment forward. From the first moments, you were an incredible parent.

But life has a way of distracting us—blinding us to the everyday heroism even when it's right under our noses. As Edna Mode sagely reminded us in The Incredibles 2, "Done properly, parenting is a heroic act", and I see your heroism.

So thank you, my love…you are incredible to me.

Thank you for stretching to pick up my slack, even when you’re just as tired as I am.

Somedays you walk through the door from work, and you were slammed all day and your commute took an hour longer than it should have, and you're immediately bombarded by a needy toddler and an (almost) equally needy wife. But when I watch you shake off the day in an instant and throw your arms around us both, ready to help, I don't think words can truly express how grateful I am.

Thank you for being strong in my moments of weakness, even if no one else ever knows about them.

I play it so strong all the time, but you know the truth. You know the moments I'm about to break or the days when I truly can't take on another thing. And how do you respond? You make it okay. You let me crumble, you let me whine, you let me cry when I need to. You make it a safe space where I don't have to be #supermom, if even just for a moment. You are my safe space, and I love you for that.

Thank you for the thousands of practical, “little” things you do every week.

From taking out the garbage to changing the lightbulbs to actually remembering to replace the toilet paper roll (something even I forget to do!), those little things don't go unnoticed—even if I often forget to thank you in the moment.

While I may take on the bulk of housework as the stay-at-home parent, you do your part in little ways I never forget. Those little things? To me, they are incredible feats, trust me.

Thank you for being the incredible father I always knew you would be.

I wouldn't have married you if I didn't think "Dad" was a mantle you could take on successfully, but it still makes my heart burst every time I see you excelling at this difficult role. You make our daughter feel supported, safe, and loved every single day, and I'm so, so happy that you are the person I chose to do this life with. Your instincts and commitment to our children amaze me every day.

So for all the million things you do—and for all the millions of times I forget to say it—I thank you. For all the million things you have yet to do for us—I thank you.

You're our hero, and you're pretty incredible.

This article is sponsored by Disney/Pixar's The Incredibles 2 on Digital October 23 and Blu-ray Nov 6. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

As I sit here and write this, I kind of feel like I'm just waking up from a newborn fog myself—like I had been living in a dream and a nightmare all at once. With all the highs and lows of newborn parenthood—I'm realizing that literally nothing could have prepared me mentally or emotionally for it. How could it have?

It's like—how do you prepare the sweet baby you're growing inside you for the warmth of the sunlight they'll feel on their cheeks or the sound of the birds chirping in the spring? Nothing you could ever say could prepare them for that kind of simple wonder.

And nothing I can tell you will prepare you for the simple wonder of being present in the first moments of your baby's precious and irreplaceable life.

Take a mental snapshot of your home as you leave for the hospital. It will never be the same again. Try to remember the way the light poured in through the windows, the way the air felt on your face. I'm thankful I was able to remember to do this myself. Months from that day when the light pours in and the air brushes against your face in a similar way you'll be filled to the brim with heartwarming nostalgia of the day your sweet baby was born.

There is nothing I can say to you that can prepare your body for the excitement, the nerves, the exhaustion, or the hard work that is giving birth. The inexplicable awestruck wonder of your baby's first breath, their first blink, their first cry. The first time you meet them—the only person in the world that knows your heart from the inside. You will be the most beautiful sight they have ever seen, as they will be yours.

There are no words for those moments. But there are actions.

Take a picture in the hospital holding that sweet soul—a picture that includes you. The postpartum you with no makeup on, your hair disheveled, your hospital gown draped over your tired body. Don't wait to be "ready."

Take the picture. I wish I had.

There aren't any words to describe your first night home and the first weeks to follow. They'll be some of the most emotional days of your entire life—highs and lows of epic proportions—waves of pride, frustration, invincibility and defeat. Take them all in and let them shape your experience.

Trust the process. I wish I had been more trusting.

Breastfeed if you want to. Formula feed if you want to. That is your choice. Make it for the right reasons. Don't do either because someone else wants you to.

Make the choice that makes you and your sweet baby happy, healthy and able to be present. I wish I had.

Don't let anyone pressure you into decisions. Don't let anyone make you feel less than for the first choices you'll make as a mother. There is no one on the earth that knows your son better than you. Yes, the diaper is on right. No, the swaddle isn't too tight.

Be confident in your abilities and instincts. I wish I had been more confident.

With that said, be open to support from those around you—particularly from the women in your life. Accept and embrace your vulnerability and surrender, at least for a little while, to the hands of your village.

My mother-in-law told me on the way home from the hospital that she was never more grateful for the presence of her mother than in the days and weeks after my husband was born. She said I would feel the same. And she was right.

Let your mom or mother-in-law or a mother figure of sorts come to your rescue. Let her put cream on your back after the shower and stroke your hair as you take a nap. Be her baby. Now you'll understand the depth of her love for you.

Try to enjoy the moments right from the start. Rock your baby to sleep. Smell their precious newborn scent. Snuggle them endlessly. Let them fall asleep on your chest and keep your skin touching theirs as much as you can. All of this will be pretty difficult as you run on likely very little sleep, so don't be hard on yourself when you feel overwhelmed (we all feel that way at times!).

But as you can— try to be there in those moments. I wish I had been more present.

Know that the first weeks and first months come with a lot more exhaustion than you could ever really imagine—but then they will end. They. Will. End. The sleepless nights eventually become more restful and your days a little more routine.

For many weeks, your nights and days will be mixed up and your schedule shot. Try your best to roll with it. Don't try to force a routine or a schedule—it will re-establish itself in time.

Have faith in those chaotic moments that things will settle. I wish I had had more faith.

Things started to get really fun for me and my son at three months and things seemed to feel like my "new normal," my body included, around five months.

In time, your sweet baby will let you put them down. They will eventually get the hang of eating. There will come a moment where your baby takes a nap in the crib. Life on this side of the womb takes a little practice. Your baby will get the hang of it, mama.

Don't worry about it. I wish I had worried a little less.

Cry with your partner when you have to. Laugh together when you can. Take too many pictures. Have patience with each other. Try to hug every single day—sneak quiet moments together when you can. Try to step back from it all and observe it quietly.

You'll be amazed at yourself, at your partner, at your new family. I wish I had stepped back more often.

…And then one morning you'll wake up from a good night's sleep. You'll wake up from that sleep and you'll sit down to HOT coffee again and you'll realize the fog has cleared a bit.

You'll see that your life is forever changed. You'll realize now that when you gave birth to your baby, you also gave birth to a mother and a father, too. You'll realize now the magnitude of what you've done.

When the fog clears and you realize the enormity of this accomplishment, I hope you reflect back on your experience and marvel at the gift you have been given and also at the gift you have given to the ones you love.

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A new mother looked at me recently during a conversation we were having about sleep deprivation during the beginning of baby's life.

As a postpartum advisor and doula, I talk to a lot of new mamas.

But I hear all the time from women in the midst of transition to motherhood who are struggling to get their little ones to sleep and to respond to the demands of infant life.

This mama looked at me in desperation and asked, “So do you just not get anything done then??"

Mamas, I want to tell you the truth. Here it is:

You will not get anything done when you are home with a baby.

And anyone who told you otherwise is not being very forthcoming (or perhaps they just have a lousy memory).

You might get yourself fed.

You might get yourself dressed (then again, you might not).

You might take a walk (it makes baby happy).

You might have a short phone conversation or start a load of laundry, neither of which you will finish.

This is your new-mom normal.

So what are you doing all day?

Not much that can be measured, really.

You're simply responding appropriately and with patience (through fatigue) to smiles, to tears, to hunger cues and to drowsiness, teaching your baby how to navigate this complex and (to a baby) highly emotional and raw world.

You are keeping your baby clean, which on some days involves more costume changes (for both of you) than any non-mother can begin to fathom.

You are teaching a tiny, helpless person all about the world—at least the important parts, like how we treat each other and what it means to be connected to a family.

You are creating a foundation of love and trust between you and your baby, one that will help you set your parenting compass, inform your future interactions, and provide a basis for the way your child relates to the larger world.

You may be breastfeeding your baby—another time-consuming task (though once established, it takes less time than bottle feeding) that reaches forward through time to heal and protect your child, and simultaneously reduces your risk of disease.

Oh, and you're becoming a mother.

It started the day your baby was conceived, and it continues beyond birth.

Your baby is stretching and growing into this new body, and you are too.

But that's about it, really. That's your day.

Our culture doesn't have a good way to measure what you are accomplishing.

Your baby will grow and meet milestones: check.

To the untrained eye, most of this work, at the end of the day, will look like nothing.

But we know better.

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There is no greater task than the "nothing" you did yesterday, the "nothing" you are doing today and the "nothing" you will do tomorrow.

Caring for a baby is all about the immediate experience, yet the first two years are all about investment.

It's give, give, give and give some more.

These are hard-fought, rough-and-tumble years that can cut us down to our core and take us soaring high above the clouds, all in the space of five minutes.

And yes, as you do the hardest work of your life, it will seem like you're not getting anything done at all. Crazy, huh?

But here's where it gets interesting...

As much as you need and want a break now (and you should take one whenever you can), no mother has ever looked back on this time and thought, I wish I had held my baby less.

You will not remember the dishes that didn't get done, the vacuuming that you just couldn't make happen or the dirty clothes you wore more often than you'd like to admit.

You will remember the first smile, the first belly laugh, the first words, the first steps.

You will remember the way you looked at your baby and the way your baby looked at you.

So the next time you find yourself wondering how another day is gone and nothing is done, stop.

Hold your baby—feel the way that tiny body strains to contain this giant soul—complete and full of potential all at the same time.

Take a deep, slow breath.

Close your eyes and measure your day not as tasks, but as feelings, as sounds, as colors.

Exhaustion is part of it.

And it's true, you will get "nothing" done.

But the hard parts will fade.

The intense, burning love is what remains, and it is yours to keep forever.

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