sink or swim

April 12, 2011 |  Category:   life parenting

I remember the first time I felt like a failure as a new parent, the day when I just wanted to send the baby back, when I kept thinking to myself “what the HELL was I thinking having one of these things?”. Mia was a pretty easy baby, relatively speaking, but there were a few weeks in those early months when she cried a lot and I cried along with her. I don’t think you ever forget the first time you felt like you lost control as a parent, the first time you felt like giving up, the first time you put the baby down in the crib even though the baby was screaming, and walked away because you didn’t know what else to do, but you were more scared of what might happen if you didn’t walk away. That night, I handed the baby over to Mark as soon as he got home from work and shut the bedroom door for the rest of the evening.

The girls are at an age now where they’ll remember stuff. Remember stuff that you do, remember stuff that you say. It keeps you in check. They are no longer babies who will never remember those days, however rare, when you slip and allow yourself to throw a tantrum. It happens. It happens to the best of us sometimes. Aside from the very obvious fact that you’re trying to raise your kids to be respectful, happy and well-adjusted adults (hopefully), there’s also this fear that you won’t screw them up with your own issues, or project your own demons onto them. Suddenly, when looked upon this way, the responsibility of parenting becomes impossibly huge.

As a teenager you may mentally make a note of all the things that you would do differently as a parent yourself. When you finally get here, however, you may realize that you’re more similar to your own parents than you think. This may pleasantly surprise you – or not. This may also really scare you, depending on your own particular situation. I always think that the hardest part of parenting is the stuff that gets dredged up to the surface from deep inside. It forces you to face certain things about yourself that you may have ignored or pushed away, the stuff that you don’t like about yourself, or perhaps is leftover from your childhood that you buried. It forces you to deal with it, to process it, to exorcise it, to let go of it, so that you can become a better parent. It also forces you to examine your relationship with your own parents, reflecting on the past with some distance and a certain perspective, but also your current relationship with them now as an adult.

Nobody really tells you about this part. You get advice about every other aspect of parenting like hitting milestones and potty training and sleep issues, but nobody tells you that along the way, you face yourself and figure out who you are. I listen to my friends who aren’t parents yet wonder out loud if they are ready. I don’t think you ever are ready. When it happens, by choice or otherwise, you’re just thrown in there. You can decide to either sink or swim. It’s not always easy. You may thrash around, flounder a bit and try to come up for air, but like anything else, it’s a process and you work at it. You may have had people in your life, for better or worse, who have been your role models, but you learn how to become a parent. And no matter what age your children are or will become, you never stop learning.

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  • Claire McV April 12, 2011 at 3:39 am

    Wise words

  • Anu April 12, 2011 at 4:34 am

    Hello, I really like your blog. I first started to read it `cause you live in New York and its very interesting to someone who lives in Helsinki but the pictures are so beautiful and the texts about being a parent so honest they really touch.

  • Susan April 12, 2011 at 4:37 am

    Very poignant Jenna…I am not yet a mother, but am looking forward to becoming one in the near future. I have always taken the idea of becoming a parent extremely seriously, which is most likely why at age 31 I am still wondering if I am ready. But then I realize you are never truly ready, and these issues you mention will be there no matter what. I do feel age helps, in that you have a better understanding of yourself, and your relationship with your parents. I hope my self-awareness will help me when I do become a mother,…but it does scare me sometimes. SO huge. As always, thank you for sharing. 😉

  • Agnes April 12, 2011 at 5:30 am

    Thank you.

  • shruthi April 12, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Being from India and married for 8 years, there is tremendous pressure on me to have a baby. You are absolutely right, I do ask myself if I am ready for this. In the midst of a career change, geographical change, can I possibly do this? And you are so right , the trigger is truly if I AM capable of raising another responsible human being by trying to be one myself. Can i deal with those issues in me that are bound to surface and can i get past it to be a mother. Everyone says, “when you get to it, you will know how”. But it is reassuring to know that it is ok to screw up sometimes!

  • jacquelyn April 12, 2011 at 7:33 am

    Amen.Amen.Amen. As a mother of a 18 yr old college freshman and 12 yr old in middle school I have often said my children made me a better woman than I ever thought I could be but it is very much sink or swim. It is also the hardest job you will ever experience and it never ends.


  • catherine April 12, 2011 at 8:07 am

    i remember those early day when my son was a baby. he would cry, i would cry, no family in NYC meant no one around to come and ‘rescue’ me. i wondered why everything wasn’t quite as sweet as i had expected.

    sometimes i feel such overwhelming pressure to make the perfect life for my son. and then i mess up, and i feel so sad.

    but then there are the of sunniest of days, when i feel like i am really doing this, being a mom, a good mom, and my boy is happy and i am happy. and on those days, i feel incredible.

  • Atsuko April 12, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Very strong writing. This can be done by parent like you who do care for your children. Thank you for sharing.

  • Anna April 12, 2011 at 8:31 am

    I am a brand new mom and am finding myself in the midst of grappling with this exact issue. Some days I feel like the biggest failure, or that my husband should be the one to stay home with our daughter because he would do a better job than I. Other days I feel like we hit our stride and that I might actually be a good mother. I appreciate the thought that mothers (parents) are made – that we have the opportunity to grow and learn from our mistakes, hopefully becoming a better person and parent in the process. Sink or swim – I trust that ultimately I will swim, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to swallow a lot of water in the process…

  • Carla April 12, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Were you writing this just for me? Feels like it =) I have two girls, just about 2 and just about 4, and there is tremendous joy but also challenges like no one could explain. And like you said, nothing prepares you for it. And no one can tell you how your demons will appear once you become a parent. You begin to (or at least I do) see all the lessons in life you still have left to learn and now teach to these young souls. And the tough part is that the lesson isn’t a sit down and read a book lesson but a live it and let them experience lesson which is the hardest one of all. As always, appreciate your candid posts.

  • SG April 12, 2011 at 9:22 am

    A friend recommended this blog to me and I am so grateful that she did. I find your writing to be so honest and refreshing, much better than any parenting site or how-to-book. I am a new mom to a wonderful 10-month old baby girl, and I love motherhood so much but it is also the toughest thing I have ever done. I often question my choices and spend too much time agonizing over things that I know aren’t worth agonizing over. My mom is a major worrier and I definitely inherited that trait. With that said, I try very hard to stay in the moment when I am with my daughter. I also work full time and it is very difficult to leave her behind every day for someone else to take care of. So when I come to your site and see your beautiful, breathtaking pictures, and read your kind and very wise words of insight into parenting and life in general, it almost feels like a soothing balm on an open wound. Thank you for that, and please keep doing what you are doing. Your girls are so lucky to have you for a mom.

  • Maya April 12, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Jenna, you’re sincerity is amazing. I can so relate to this post. I have two girls with the same age gap as your two and we live in nyc too… I know what its like. I do…you’re amazing that you’re so consiencious… I deal with these emtions on a daily basis too.

  • RebeccaNYC April 12, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I am not a parent, and I often wonder if it is because of how my parents were, and fears that I would be like that as a parent too. I don’t know. Thanks for the morning meditation….

  • Jessica Reid April 12, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Thank you for being so candid in your posts. It really does help in those moments when you feel totally alone in your failures, and disappointed with yourself as a parent. Which is of course, a whole lot more often than you’d like it to be.

  • smama April 12, 2011 at 10:14 am


  • Bridget April 12, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Thank you for expressing so clearly about the parent issue/revisiting who you are/were. You’re right, no one talks about it much. And it’s HUGE.

  • Hye Son April 12, 2011 at 10:32 am

    When my son was nine years old he was throwing a tantrum in the car and I pulled over and told him to get out. It was a low point and I decided to take the advice of a child psychologist and read a book titled “Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens + Teens”. It is a book for older kids but I think it’s helpful for any age where there are power struggles. It’s helped me become a better parent and it has allowed me to avoid the cycle of fighting we were once struggling with.

  • Abby April 12, 2011 at 11:31 am

    I’m not a mom and not planning on being one for many years yet, but I’m very encouraged and inspired by your wisdom and humility. You write so well. Your girls are very lucky to have you for a mom.

  • oilandgarlic April 12, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Very good post. I never read anything about this topic yet I have often thought about the same thing — how your parents affect your desire to be a parent and your parenting style. No one has perfect parents but I think I was lucky to have a very patient, kind mom. She is a major reason that I even felt ready (or as ready as can be) for parenthood!

  • mau April 12, 2011 at 11:56 am

    wiser words were never spoken!

  • Marta April 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Beautiful post -thanks so much for it!

  • Renita April 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Not a parent, but share the same experiences with dealing with my other relationships and well being of others. How far to go, when to let go, when to stand still ….

  • Jane W April 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Oh boy,I ‘ve been there, staring at my baby going “oh my god what have I done, I’m not cut out to be a mom!”. It’s the hardest job in the world, and often goes unappreciated, but all you can do is try your best, and hope for the best. 🙂

  • Jane W April 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Oh, and when I was teenager my dad actually pulled over, kicked me out of the car, and drove around the block before picking me up again. But you know what? I survived. And considering the kind of bratty teenager I was, I’m lucky he actually came back for me!

  • Vanessa Rae April 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Hello Jenna, as always I love visiting your site. You have such a gift for expressing yourself through words and photographs and I took this post to heart. I am a mother of two small bittles and it is the best and most challenging experience of my life so far. I have moments when I lose my temper and days when I would rather hide in my closet. Fortunately, my love for my children and my life overcome my doubts as a mother and as a woman and I learn to take each day in stride, forgiving myself and affirming all the positive. My parents were not perfect but over all they made me feel important and loved and those are the memories that I dwell on. Thanks for sharing. The photos are amazing!

  • Kaisha April 12, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I just spent the last 30 minutes having my toddler scream (red faced and crazy eyed) at me while yelling, “mama, mama” while I too cry because I didn’t know what was wrong or what to do to soothe her. After getting her to nap, I looked at your blog (as I do everyday) and reading your words and your readers comments has me in tears again (I swear I’m not usually this emotional). But this time it’s from relief that other parents, all over the world, struggle with this huge job as much as I do. I send you a very heartfelt thank you for being so honest and open with your experiences as a mother and for infusing a little perspective into my otherwise toddler-centric day.

  • JWK April 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    so so true.

  • Em April 12, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Beautifully put.

  • Darcy April 12, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you for this – beautiful said. just perfect. absolutely perfect.

  • Brittany H April 12, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    You sound like an honest parent. Very well put. I’m going to bookmark this.


  • Amina April 12, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Thank you Jena for your honest writing. I wish more parents (including self) were open about challenges of parenting. It is sink or swim, yet everyone has his/her own style.

  • Suzanne April 12, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    This really is the unspoken truth about parenthood – the fact that it brings up these things and feelings that really are buried deep inside. So visceral. I thought I was very in touch with who I was, what my issues were and my feelings surrounding them. And to a certain degree, I was. But then I had my son. I was totally amazed by what it unearthed in me (good and not so good), and the intensity with which it happened.

    Thank you for describing it so eloquently.

  • Diane Faye Zerr April 12, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    This is one of those times where I say “this is why I read this blog”. It’s real life, it’s not fluff – you’re not worrying about what your ‘audience’ wants to read, you just write about your life and real experiences.

    I can’t believe how becoming a parent has changed everything about me. Thank you for writing this post and for once again letting us know that we’re not alone in this crazy thing called life.

  • Theresa April 13, 2011 at 3:18 am

    I hear ya!  Seriously feel like Im just about tosink most days but then I get new life and pull myself up again.  It is hard… I bring to table many many issues from a troubled childhood but I do the best I can and that is all I can ask of myself. Since I was very young I have been able to put on a happy face even in the worst of situations… So I have that going for me.  Like, everyone else here who follows your blog, I thank you for your honesty!  It makes it a bit easier for all of us, I think, to be reminded that life is and always will be a work in progress.

  • Linnea April 13, 2011 at 5:24 am

    GOOD posting!

    As a parent, you are pupposed to be endlessly happy, “everybody is”, you’re so lucky etc. But sometimes you are at your wits end and tired. Here the fashion is never to speak of those moments.

    At my school, we are all trying to indestructible and perfect. Nothing is duller or more sad, but when I refuse to conform it is uncomfortable. The teachers are human though. That’s a good sign?

    I like it so much when people are admitting to being human.

    Regards, Linnea

  • Linnea April 13, 2011 at 5:25 am

    Sorry, “supposed” – Typo is a close and personal friend

  • Linnea April 13, 2011 at 6:39 am

    And by the way, the “school” is med school

  • gail April 13, 2011 at 7:40 am

    It’s true–parenting our kids exposes our character weaknesses like nothing else (except possibly holding political office). I was a very reluctant mother, found myself “accidently” pregnant twice and having had one abortion early on knew I could not ever have another. As a mom I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but decided I would commit my best–a way of balancing out my lack of responsibility thus far. Unlike a lot of other moms I knew, I wasn’t one who idealized or “really loved” babies or children–I found the only way to go forward was to understand that I was sponsoring them for life. Out of this commitment grew so much mutual respect, love, and appreciation. Now my girls are 31 & 27, and I enjoy free, honest, and frequent communication with both. Overall, just as you said, it is totally sink or swim. Thank you so much for your candor.

  • Giselle April 13, 2011 at 9:03 am

    you expressed so clearly the thoughts about parenting yet dealing with the child within oneself, the scars of childhood coming into play at times of stress as a parent. reading your thoughts, expressed clearly, was liberating. ultimately, whatever careless words or flared temper, one hopes to forgive oneself, and can move forward to healing and can resolve to do better.

  • Anissa April 13, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I have three children and the best advice I could give anyone on parenting would be just to make sure that your children know that they are loved and valued. Mistakes will be made (by the parents) but I have found that children are amazingly gracious in accepting apologies and it teaches them that we’re all human and that, even as parents, we’re not perfect and can admit when we screw up. Having had three kids with a large age span helps me keep the perspective that whatever horrible behavior they’re exhibiting at the moment (or in a current phase) will pass and that detaching myself from the situation somewhat helps me stay calm. I want them to grow up with their self-esteem in tact so I try as hard as I can to behave differently than my mother did.

  • Fiona April 13, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Okay so I also feel like this and I don’t even have any kids. I can literally lose sleep imagining when my possible kids hit puberty and sexuality becomes an issue — knowing how anxious my mother felt about me and what I deserved or didn’t, based on what she grew up with… and I’m projecting that projection onto my unborn children ALREADY? I have even thought about dealing with a counsellor now, even though the situation is about 16 to 18 years down the road.

    So I can only imagine what it must be like when you have the kids.

  • wendy Briggs April 13, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Having parented 4 teenagers with one more to go, I have found that being flawed and admitting it has been my most powerful resource and source of strength and relieve. It’s powerful stuff.

  • Sara Jensen April 14, 2011 at 12:20 am

    You better start swimming.

  • Laura April 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    This post really resonated with me. I come from a very dysfunctional family and when i had my 2 children i couldn’t believe the things it unearthed. Not having parents to go to for advice has been difficult when raising my kids. There are some days where i feel like i don’t know what I am doing and if I am doing it well enough. Thanks for this post, it makes me realize I am not the only one who struggles with parenthood.

  • suzanne April 17, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    A beautiful, poignant and oh so true post. Thank you for writing it

  • Selina April 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the insight Jenna. Surprisingly, it made me feel a bit more grounded with the task before me. Our baby is due in 4 weeks and I feel more overwhelmed by getting the necessities, gear, room, house, etc. right by the time he or she comes into our lives. Your words are reminding me of the real stuff we are going to face, but it’s the important stuff and where we will grow as a family.

    Also, I can never see too many pictures of cookies.