I think one of the worst things to hear as a parent, at least of young children and definitely of kids still at home, is “Enjoy this stage: they’re going to grow up before you know it!” Honestly, any unsolicited advice or “pseudo-advice,” which is what I’d call this admonishment, is generally unwelcome. Adjusting to parenting is hard enough — finding your own groove, your own way of handling all the changes, all the individual factors that combine to make your parenting experience unique in some ways — that getting told how to do better, or, worse, how to “think” or “feel” better about it, is a tough pill to swallow. You pretty much just wanna smack the well-intended but not-thinking person who dared to say it, perhaps with a squishy used diaper (OK, this is my reaction when I get ridiculously tired and cranky: I tend to overlook how people really can say things in well-meaning ways). Here’s my advice to improve that advice: be encouraging, give specific tips you’ve found useful, and provide a meal or babysitting if you really wanna make ’em smile!
Here’s what I know after 18 years of being a mom and being still in the middle of raising four daughters: parenting is tough. It’s physically and mentally and emotionally draining. It takes everything that’s in you and more. It makes you double- and triple-question yourself. And each stage of raising kids has its own set of challenges that exhaust your reserves (or try to) in various ways.
But I have come to appreciate that each parent, thanks to his or her particular backgrounds and skills, may be better at, more suited to, or at least enjoy certain stages more than others. I am pretty sure I was not a natural at parenting babies and toddlers, although by the time I got to my third, I was better prepared and, thus, more interested in it and wanting to “enjoy” it, “savor” it, more (as much as is possible). But with my first, who was honestly a very needy, demanding baby and gave me not a second to myself, to gather my thoughts or even shower, without fussing for me, I was always on edge. Tired is not an adequate adjective to describe how it feels to take care of a newborn in any circumstance, anyway. (This is why I reiterate: do NOT tell the mom or dad of a newborn to “just relax and enjoy it.” Enjoyment requires a level of consciousness that is precluded by the exhaustion that fogs up the brain and life in general. One can just catch snippets of enjoyment.) I did enjoy my subsequent babies more because I knew a little better what I was doing and they weren’t as demanding, naturally; plus, I had other kids by then to help with them. But I still just couldn’t dive in and fully enjoy because, like I said, that requires a lack of haziness.
What I have come to enjoy so far are the school years, in some small part because I generally get a full night’s sleep every night. Mostly, though, I love to teach my kids and help them learn, and read with them (and since I love reading, I must admit I’d rather read a book that at least has a rudimentary PLOT, rather than a long selection of letters or numbers, I don’t care how adorably illustrated and brightly colored those letters may be). I also like having them be gone for part of the day, so I can have a little time to gather my thoughts, be myself, and get some things done without their assistance or accompaniment. Yes. I admit that. When they are then home I can really have more fun with them. I like teaching them as part of our everyday life, not as a “lesson.” I chatted with my nearly-12-year-old last night about mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, including my interest in subatomic particles and my desire to eventually make time to stop at the (fairly close-by to me) Lawrence Livermore lab (ooh… particle acceleration!). I mean, really, who wouldn’t be excited by the tiniest, unobservable pieces of matter being slung around inside a tube for a mile to see what they’ll do?
I found myself grateful yesterday by the simple fact that I could run inside the library for a couple of minutes and tell the same nearly-12-year-old that, yes, since she has a good stack of books for the moment, she could stay in the locked car and (probably read while doing so) wait for me. You can’t do that with littler ones. I am grateful for this stage of parenting, with a daughter who’s about to graduate high school (but hasn’t yet) and younger ones down to a nearly-7-year-old who can all open and close the car doors, buckle and unbuckle themselves and get in and out themselves. They can walk with me in the store rather than have to be stuck in a cart (although it’s still generally preferable, because it’s faster and quieter, for me to shop at Target or the grocery store by myself). They’re all potty-trained and can give themselves baths and do all the other self-care. They can even prepare food for themselves, at various levels. Yep, I’m glad to be past the stage where I have to do every detail to keep them alive and healthy. Now it’s more fine-tuning and the heftier matter of getting them properly educated and prepared for the world. It’s daunting, but it’s a stage I mostly enjoy.
I have friends who adore when their children are out of school and can pursue all kinds of things; I have friends who are/were amazing in all the cute projects they did with their toddlers and preschoolers. I know some amazing grandparents. But I no longer feel bad about not having been more like them, for instance, when my kids were at earlier stages. I am liking where we are now, despite the raging female hormones and completely unfounded crying spells. It’s fun. They’re easier to talk to, to share things with, to joke with. No, I do not treat my kids like “equals” or “friends” in that I do not expect them to be respectful of adults and do what I ask since I’m the parent. But they are so fun and so interesting that I consider them friends now. And isn’t that the greatest thing in the world: to raise your own friends?