Before having kids, I didn’t understand parents at all. They struck me as another species. They left events early, or skipped them altogether. They could never just grab coffee or a drink. They clogged up my social media with their boring family photos.
Now it all makes perfect sense.
You have to be a parent for a while before you understand how it changes you. One day you’re chasing a toddler around the house with a snot rag, then you stop and go, “Wow, this isn’t what I used to do on Saturday mornings.” Your life has evolved, in more ways than you know.
It’s easy to focus on the challenges and sacrifices. But those come with hidden bonuses, if you think about them the right way.
1. You rediscover what intimacy means
Caring for a small human is flat out exhausting, especially after they become mobile. You just don’t feel like getting freaky after you’ve spent all day handling other kinds of bodily fluids.
This is normal.
You don’t realize how much emotional energy sex requires until you’ve got someone else in your life absorbing most of it. You never felt the weight of all that time you spent making yourself look nice and getting each other in the mood. Now you do, and it’s heavy.
After your kid falls asleep, you can think of five other things you’d rather do. But you also learn something else.
There’s other ways to bond with your spouse than sex. Just holding hands during a TV show, or giving a massage, takes on new meaning. It becomes more intentional, because it’s harder. You can practice alternative forms of intimacy, and even put them on a schedule.
Parenting reminds you that intimacy doesn’t always presuppose sex. Sometimes, you just want a back rub. Giving that to someone when you can barely keep your eyes open means you love them.
2. You see how much you were pampering other adults
It’s one thing to watch a toddler tantrum on YouTube, and something else to be in charge of de-escalating it. Same goes for keeping them away from electrical outlets, toilets, and sharp objects.
Most toddlers act like they have a death wish. They’re selfish, loud, and rude. They don’t understand the laws of physics. We forgive them for all the frustration they cause because their brains are still developing, and they’re also cute — even when they’re upset.
Adults aren’t cute when they get upset.
They’re not adorable when they make impossible demands or demonstrate no understanding of how the universe operates.
Some of us treated our friends or coworkers like our own children, until we suddenly had actual offspring to feed and take care of. It opened our eyes to just how much we tolerated.
Parenting stretches you pretty thin some days. Those are the ones you finally realize that you never should’ve had to soothe delicate tempers, coddle fragile egos, or spoon feed information to adults. You get better at gently telling these people to grow up.
3. You understand the elasticity of patience
There’s all kinds of ways to measure this virtue. For a long time, I weighed patience in ounces. Having a kid changed that. Over the course of six hours, you can literally feel your patience stretch.
Patience is a muscle, but also kind of a rubber band.
When you exercise patience, you really are increasing how long and how far you can go until a snapping point.
Everyone loves to describe themselves as patient. But you don’t know true patience until your kid pulls every single one of your carefully organized books off a shelf, spills a gallon of bubble juice, or throws your iPhone in the toilet and claps at the splashy sound.
How you react to these moments defines you as a person. This is when you learn just how patient you are.
4. You learn how to manage emotions
The invisible labor of parenthood forces you to confront all your baggage and trauma. If you don’t, then you won’t be able to handle all the curve balls and unpleasant surprises coming your way.
You have to learn how to put yourself second or third for a little while. You have to start anticipating your triggers.
You have to be able to feel something powerful without necessarily expressing it at a given time. You learn to vent in healthier ways that don’t expose your loved ones to all the crap inside your head.
You also get better at dealing with other people’s emotions. A child blows through a range of states in just one hour. You have to decipher unspoken needs, redirect dangerous desires, and quell tantrums.
It’s a nice set of tools to have for all occasions.
Plenty of us think we know how to handle our emotions, when we were really just stuffing them in closets. We had no idea how much down time we needed just to process a day’s events. Kids show you all that. They leave you no choice but to develop your emotional intelligence.
5. You learn how to handle chaos and disorder
Even the most minimalist household fills up with toy clutter faster than you could ever imagine. You learn just what headaches unfold from a simple box of crayons. The parenting guides today say you have to let your kids make a mess. This is how they learn about the world.
You can try to clean as you go, but it’s a losing battle. Nothing teaches you about entropy like a kid.
So the mess prevails for a while. No true cleaning can happen until after your kid goes to bed — and this means making peace with the crumbs and clutter. You get used to the constant distractions.
You find a way to stop what you’re doing, even if you’re not finished. You learn how to tie up loose ends later and live in the moment, even if that moment stresses you out a little.
6. You realize the true value of time
None of us really appreciate just how many hours we have to burn when nobody depends on us. You can spend your nights however you want — resting, working, partying. Nobody claims your time.
It’s truly yours.
Kids re-teach you what it means to have a handful of hours to yourself, and how it feels when they’re snatched away by colds or snow days. You become a master of fringe time, by necessity. Those little phone breaks? Now you spend them picking up toys or brainstorming projects.
Parenting makes you conscious of time in a whole new way. You start thinking deeply about just what you can do in fifteen minutes, because that’s all you might get to complete a task.
You wouldn’t dare think of “killing a few hours” on Netflix unless that was the absolute top thing you wanted to do.
We think kids suck up a lot of our time. But honestly, we wasted a lot of it before they ever entered the scene. Learning how to parent is a crash course in procrastination and productivity.
7. You come up with new routines
Whatever worked for you before definitely doesn’t anymore. Maybe you used to get things done by cloistering yourself in a study to knock out a big project. Well, not anymore. Kids don’t allow this.
So you figure out another way. Maybe you set up a home office. Maybe you learn how to do work in short spurts instead of marathons.
Maybe you learn to love eating the same thing five days in a row, because it lets you cook meals in bulk.
8. You put a premium on genuine self-care
When Monday comes, anyone who doesn’t have a kid has enjoyed an entire weekend to themselves. Maybe they dread the start of the work week, but not like an exhausted parent who spent half of Sunday at the urgent care center, wondering what strange virus their child has.
In our 20s, we mistook self-care for relaxing and hanging out with our friends. Now we get it, that was just a small slice.
Sometimes what we want to do is the opposite of how we take care of ourselves. Parents don’t enjoy as much slack in mixing up fun and health. When you stay up too late, or spend too much time on work, you feel it like you never did before.
You feel like more of a mummy than a mommy.
Taking care of yourself takes on new dimensions. It’s not just about feeling good anymore, it’s about doing the things that actually rest and recharge you — so that you can take care of someone else.
9. You realize you aren’t immortal
Something about watching a little you run around reminds you just how little time we spend on this earth. You start to see a world without you in it, and you think about what you’re leaving behind.
Before, you thought of your death as a you thing. But now you’ve got this little creature that depends on you. If you died now, it would have consequences beyond friends missing you.
It’s not even just about death. Being a parent maxes you out. That’s when you truly start to understand what you can and can’t do, what you’re good at, and where you need to grow.
Change lasts forever
Nobody ever really “decides” to have kids. This is something I didn’t understand until having them. Couples weigh the pros and cons. We read articles and take quizzes. It doesn’t help.
There’s a kind of inevitability to some things that you can’t explain through normal decision making. You’re just going to do it, or you’re not. Either is fine, but it’s not a choice.
Parenthood is more of an orientation.
It’s almost written into your DNA. And…who knows? One day scientists might find the parent gene.
So many decisions we make are reversible, at least on the surface. You can return things to the store. You can take back promises. You can get divorced. You can even nullify contracts. But you can’t do that with kids. If you’re a bad parent, you’re still a parent. If you abandon your kids, or mistreat them, it doesn’t undo parenthood — just alters it.
That might be the biggest lesson of parenthood. Nothing is ever created or destroyed, only transformed — and it’s permanent. You don’t choose to live with consequences. They live with you.