'Just Wait': Two Words No Parent Should Have To Hear Or Say

The term isn’t helpful to anyone. So why do we use it?

“Just wait,” trills the midwife. “In a few months you’ll look back on this and think it was a lovely lie-down!” I’m in hospital, giving birth to my son, and my epidural is wearing off. I moan as my entire body bucks against another searing contraction. “Should probably call the anaesthetist,” the midwife continues, holding a gas-and-air nozzle to my mouth. “Honestly, you just wait till you have a little’un running around; this isn’t the hard bit.”

About an hour later, I start shaking, then vomiting, then a bunch of alarms ring out from the machine monitoring my baby’s heart. As I’m rushed into surgery, all I can think is: “Oh my god, and this isn’t even the hard bit!”

This is how my older son entered the world back in 2015, via an emergency caesarean after I developed sepsis during labour. I should point out that he’s fine now – four-years-old; in school; insists on being addressed as ‘The Hulk’.

I’m fine, too, although following the birth I had flashbacks to the gorier bits of the birth, and was diagnosed with PTSD. And although I know my midwife was just striking up merry conversation, I did spend months waiting for the other shoe to drop; for the “hard bit” to start. The term “just wait” isn’t helpful to anyone. And yet so many people trot it out.

Getty
Getty

Young people who say they don’t want children are told to “just wait” because they’ll change their minds. Pregnant women are told to “just wait” until they’ve had a baby (because only then will they know true tiredness). Even having the baby doesn’t exempt them from this – after that they’re told to “just wait” until they have two. Or their child is two; or a “threenager”; or a teenager; because “that’s a whole new ballgame”.

In five years of parenting I’ve heard this a lot – inevitably from people who are further along the parenting road. A woman in a cafe saw me breastfeeding my baby once, and leant over to say, “Just wait till there are teeth.”

At playgroup, my toddler hugged me, and another mother shouted over: “THAT WON’T LAST, HE’LL HATE YOU WHEN HE’S NINE.” Even a friend, visiting my newborn younger son for the first time, commented: “Yeah, he’s cute and everything, but just wait till he’s mobile and you have to watch him constantly.”

What on earth are these people attempting to achieve by saying this? It doesn’t feel particularly friendly, just a reminder that anything I’m enjoying is transient, and my current struggles pale in comparison to what’s to come. A friend of mine, when told to “just wait until your baby is teething”, actively asked for tips – but was told “You’ll know when you go through it”. You just can’t win.

As someone who writes down her thoughts, research and experiences for a living, I often note the phenomenon of “Try…”. As in, “Oh yeah? Try being menopausal!” in response to a piece I wrote about attitudes to period pain. Or “Try being an older woman without children!” (after I wrote about older mothers), and “Try being mixed race and disabled!” (following an article about being mixed race, in which I did not disclose my own disability).

The wild assumptions and lack of empathy in these comments used to irritate me, until I realised that these people are, for whatever reason, feeling unappreciated and unheard in their own lives, and reacting to that, rather than me, or the subject under discussion. Similarly, I wonder if the “just wait” parenting brigade are actually taking aim at their past parenting selves.

They’re not saying, ”You just wait, it all gets so much worse and moreover I’m not going help prepare you for it, just belittle your current experiences while hinting at ominous things in your future”. They’re saying, “Oh gosh, I wasn’t prepared for how tough it was going to be when I was where you are now.”

Perhaps “just wait” is actually code for “I’m having a rough time”. And not even the sort of rough time you can help with – if someone’s kid’s being bullied in the playground, she may not want to discuss it with someone who is still breastfeeding their baby for 10 hours a day in front of Netflix.

We’ve all had the temptation to say “just wait” or a variation thereof, parents or not. A couple of years ago, when my sister-in-law was pregnant with her firstborn, I would natter supportively about pregnancy every time I saw her… until I realised what I was actually doing was lecturing her. My motivations were positive, but it must have been tedious (and probably a little bit patronising).

It came spilling out of me because, well, becoming a parent is such a steep learning curve, you have to become an expert in your specific experiences. Quickly. And then you have all this knowledge swimming around your brain.

Now, if I ever find myself about to say “just wait”, I try and flip it into a positive. Feeling terrified of parenting is universal, and that’s where I know I can help.

“Just wait until you’ve had a few goes at this, you’ll feel confident in no time!”

“Just wait until your baby’s arrived and you’re at home where you’re comfortable, and getting to know them. It’ll feel different then!”

“Just wait till this bit passes and you realise how far you’ve come.”

“Just wait until your kid can talk, and they tell you they love you. There’s nothing like it.”

And if someone says “just wait” to you? Know they’re not your people, and move away. Or, if they refuse to shut up about how bad they have it, and you don’t have a tiny violin to hand, feel free to show them this Adam Ellis comic. Hopefully they’ll get the message.