How I Parent explores the ins and outs of modern day parenting with moms and dads from all over the country, who are raising their own unique families and sharing their best advice and most heartfelt lessons with PEOPLE. Want to be a part of it? Email what makes your family so special to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Alexa Cohen
Location: Kansas City, Kansas
Family situation: Married and a stay-at-home mother to two sons, ages 1 and 2. The older one attends a preschool program three mornings a week and the younger one stays with a babysitter one morning a week so I can have one-on-one time with my older son. Otherwise, they’re all mine!
Her parenting philosophy in a sentence: Model the behavior you’d like to see, have realistic expectations, and always answer questions.
What was your journey to having the family life you have today?
In the Orthodox Jewish community, we tend to get married on the younger side. I got married right after college, and it’s almost a given that you’ll have children. We had children early and all of that was very typical, however, I ended up having postpartum depression after my first son. That’s where things got unique.
Postpartum depression transformed how I saw my family and my family’s future. It is very common, but each person experiences it differently. I actually didn’t know I had it — my mother knew. She told me that I needed to see someone and then basically dragged me to a doctor when I didn’t want to go. One of the scariest parts of depression is that when you’re in it, it masks itself as rationality so well that you can think that it’s normal to feel that way. Doctors can help you get back to feeling like who you used to be.
When I was going through it, I started to feel like adding a baby to our family had broken something in me and that I was never going to be okay again. That was the depression. That’s where it differentiated itself from the baby blues. I wasn’t thinking, “This is so hard.” I wasn’t just thinking, “I wish I could go to sleep,” which is very normal to think when you have a newborn. I was thinking, “I will never be okay with this,” and those feelings hurt so badly that I wanted any way to escape. You’re like an animal with your leg caught in a trap and rationality really goes by the wayside. After my mother dragged me to a physician, I was very grateful the physician took it very seriously. My family and my doctor came together as my support team and brought me back from the brink.
After my firstborn, I decided to take time in between each child to take care of myself and my family. I also discovered gentle parenting, which I feel really matched my needs and my child’s needs at the time. It’s a parenting approach that emphasizes a respect for a child as an individual. It moves away from authoritarian or disciplinarian methods, like arbitrary punishment or a demand for respect from the child, and is geared towards working with the child at the level that they’re at within the family.
How did your upbringing influence your parenting style?
I was brought up in a very culturally affiliated home. I was raised to be a religious Jew. I’m raising my children to be religious Jews and there’s a strong sense of tradition and community that goes along with that. There were certain things I did growing up, which were really fun, and now it’s even more fun doing them with my children. Just watching them enjoy our traditions is the most magical for me. My parents also raised me with a really strong sense of self, which I am hugely appreciative for. Their support gave me the courage to make it through some of the harder parts of parenting. They help me feel proud of who I am as a parent, even when things aren’t as picture perfect.
What’s your favorite thing about parenting?
My favorite part is the sense of adventure. Everything is an adventure when you’re parenting little children. We went to the grocery store the other day and my son got a cart of his own for the first time and suddenly, our grocery list was a scavenger hunt. Then, determining which fruits were ripest was a sensory activity and we just raced up and down the aisles. It was a lot of fun and usually, grocery shopping is not something people find enjoyable. Anything can be an adventure — a flight delay, returning something at the store, traffic — anything.
What’s the hardest part?
At any stage of parenting, it’s probably the vast amount of responsibility. Deciding things for other human beings that will determine how much they enjoy their lives is really challenging. Understanding a toddler who may not be able to tell you, “this makes me sad” or “this hurts my feelings,” and trying to make the best decisions on his behalf can be hard. Medical decisions, educational decisions — everything really comes down to you and at the end of the day and you’ll answer for it, good or bad.
Luckily, my husband is the perfect co-parent, who will always stay up late with me to bounce something off the wall, even if it’s something that I’ve been turning around in my mind for weeks or months. I’m also lucky to have my mother and older sister, who are always there to lend a listening ear when I need to talk something out.
How do you find time for yourself and your relationship?
We’re still figuring that out on a day-to-day basis and some days are better than others. Some days we’re two ships passing and some days we think to ourselves, wow, that was really a win.
The number one thing I’m still learning to do is to delegate. I want to let my parents come and watch the kids, find a trusted babysitter, and make sure I am devoting enough time to our relationship. Toddlers are very demanding and they won’t tough it out. They’ll let you know if they’re upset. If you have a spouse who will tough it out, it’s easy to neglect the relationship sometimes because they won’t complain like a toddler will — but it’s not healthy.
Also, just on a self-care level, spending time with someone else who enjoys your children as much as you do is a really healthy and enjoyable. The other night, my husband and I spent two hours watching old home movies, and I don’t know anyone else who would do that with me. It was one of the best date nights we’ve had.
What’s the best advice you can share with new parents?
My favorite thing my father once told me was that there’s always a “last time” in parenting. There will be a last time that you rock your son to sleep. There will be a last time that you nurse your son. You never expect it to come but it sneaks up on you. Then, you’re sad when it’s gone. I found that to be really true and it helps me enjoy where I am and to keep my mind on the present.
Also, try to avoid getting sucked into Google. You can find out the most terrifying untruths presented in such an appealing package that it seems like it has to be fact. My son has asthma and he needs to take medicine for it. I made the mistake of looking up that medicine on Google and let me tell you, it was a huge mistake. I went into his doctor with a whole list of terrors from the side effects I found and he looked at me and said, “At the end of the day, your son has to breathe,” which is right. I think a lot of parents are finding that these days, the information that you can get doesn’t always make you a better parent, it just makes you more paranoid.
How do you embrace the most unpredictable moments of parenthood?
At the end of the day, the best thing to do is to laugh. Parenthood can be gross, messy, hard, and tiring. If you can laugh in the face of all that, I think everything else will sort itself out.
What would you want your kids to say about you as a parent?
I always hope that my kids would say they were lucky to have me as a parent. I also hope that they have peace. It’s a bit of a scary time now. The Jewish community has been the focus of a lot attacks and I’m scared. I think every parent wants their kids to grow up in a world that’s a little bit better than the one that they grew up in and we’re not there yet, but I’m not ready to give up.