It’s likely one of the first things you’ll want to do when you discover that you’re about to be a parent: acquire lots of pregnancy and parenting books so that you can “prepare” yourself for this huge life change and hope you’ll get everything right. But, (if the conspicuous quotes around “prepare” aren’t yet blaring their message), I’m here to tell you what no one told me: That all the reading and thinking and war-gaming and solution-drafting and documentary-watching in the world cannot prepare you for the experience you’re about to undergo, because this is unlike anything you’ve done before. The methodology used in your life up until now—apply and dedicate yourself to a previously-chosen path, do A which leads to B which leads to C, solve a problem with motivation and research and achieve the result you envisioned—that’s not the way having a baby goes.
It’s not a comforting thought, I know. It may in fact be unimaginable to you at this point, this other way of approaching a new situation … which is how I also know that you’re going to read all you can anyway. I can’t stop you, nor could I stop myself. Understandable! But before you pick up What to Expect When You’re Expecting and take a pointless walk through the produce isle (“Your baby is the size of a strawberry! A leek! A squash!”), and before you open The Happiest Baby on the Block and prime yourself to feel awful when you discover how few of its theories actually work for your baby, let me attempt to point you toward these more productive reads. They’re not about pregnancy, (because even though it may not seem like it right now, 40 weeks of gestation are just a blip on the horizon of new parent life), but rather an attempt to encapsulate the mental/spiritual/psychological experience of becoming the protector of a tiny new human. Read them, witness how parenting has affected their authors, and take comfort in knowing that you too can do this.
And Now We Have Everything: On Parenthood Before I was Ready by Meaghan O’ Connell
The author’s life is going well, her job is moving forward, her home is looking cuter, and she decides to throw a kink in it all by having a baby. Sound familiar? The story that follows is one of the most visceral postpartum pictures I’ve ever encountered, full of more-people-should-be-talking-about-this moments. She deals with her changed body and with having visitors at her house. She struggles to go back to work when, as other moms would likely also say, “your baby’s entire nutrition and most of his emotional well-being are completely reliant on your body.” And she attacks the often very fraught, emotional, relationship-straining postpartum sex hiatus that took me by surprise. It’s like opening a window on a closed world.
After Birth by Elisa Albert
As I read this novel, I found myself wondering if it wasn’t the answer to a nagging interior question that surfaced while I went through postpartum depression: If someone had told me how lonely it would be, how much I would grieve, how jealous I’d be of other moms who seemed constantly busy and beaming, would I have been better at dealing with it? If you’re pretty sure Instagram parenting is a lie (it is), and if you’re feeling brave enough to glimpse the dark side, give this a read. Pregnant people, partners, and those who are child-curious will all benefit from this unflinching tale of life with a new baby in a small town, and the beauty that arises out of it all.
I Heart My Little A-Holes: A Bunch of Holy-Crap Moments No One Every Told You About Parenting by Karen Alpert
At its base, this book about a stressed-out mama and her two little kids is all love; love in the face of disgusting, appalling, thankless poop duty and all the hair-doing and food-cutting that life in the trenches of parenthood brings. Laugh through chapters like Ten Things I really F’ing want for Mothers Day, Why I’m a Worse Mom than You, and The New Rules of Mommyhood, where her advice really rings true: “Once you own maternity pants, you’re allowed to wear them forever without getting bad looks; you are no longer allowed to brag that your child sleeps late, that you cooked a three course dinner, that you breastfed, or ask whether another mom works, because we ALL work, more than anyone on Earth.” It’s a love letter to parents everywhere, a testament to non-judgment, a handshake between you and that other exhausted toddler-toting person who just buried their kid’s art in the trashcan because, “it’s not a snake, it’s an f-ing line on a page.” You’ll love it.
The Present Parent Handbook: 26 Simple Tools to Discover that This Moment, This Action, This Thought, This Feeling is Exactly Why I’m Here by Timothy Dukes
“Perfect parenting is a myth. No one is perfect, but you can be present. If what you’re doing is missing the mark, try something else. Be compassionate, playful, and creative; trust that if you keep trying, you will find your way.” This should be your new manta, because like the rest of this book, it will serve you for a long time, through the sleepless infant stage into wild toddler life and school and beyond. In bitesized servings that can readily be consumed by barely-awake parents and partners, it will remind you why you work so hard to form this human into a responsible adult. How you should avoid cramming your child into the same spaces other children occupy (“Parenting is not about winning”), how you should gauge the pressure you put on your children (“They may submit, but does that truly benefit? Are you willing to take a defeat in service of your connection?”), and perhaps most importantly, how every day in this job represents an opportunity to start fresh. He says it best: “In any moment, we can choose to be who our child needs us to be, [and] as we invent ourselves on a moment-to-moment basis, parenthood is uncovered, recovered, and discovered in our own experience as well as in our child’s … if we really settle into this process, we can rest assured that what we are doing with our life, at least in this moment, is exactly what we need to be doing.”
Shelley DeWees is a three-time Willow client who spends her days chasing her toddler son and almost-two-year-old daughter around her home in South St Paul. She’s currently expecting her third baby, another boy, and loves reading books and going to workout classes.