You choose the worst times to say it—those spinning, giggling moments where if a camera was on fast shutter speed, every frame, every angle would catch the joy. Either those moments or the ones where weariness seeps into everything, with the squirming, whining, lightening-fast hands in the checkout line.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” you say, standing behind us in line, standing over our park bench, as you walk by our booth at the restaurant. “Eventually they will be teenagers and then you’ll know what parenting really is. Just wait.”
You need to know, parents of older children, parents who have teenagers, parents whose little ones are all grown up, these are not helpful words to us parents of small children.
When you say, “Enjoy it while it lasts,” and when you say, “Just wait,” you are either raining on our parade or pouring salt on our wounds. And in case you don’t remember, most days with little ones aren’t parade sorts of days; most days we walk on feeling wounded, our own tears or theirs providing plenty of salt already.
When you rain on our parade, you are telling us there is no hope. This is the best we’ll ever have. It gets worse from here on in. Enjoy it while it lasts.
And when you tell us to enjoy when we are squarely in the middle of tantrums and chaos and are clearly embarrassed and frazzled, you aren’t accomplishing what you are hoping. Maybe your desire really is for us to enjoy even the hardest of moments, to do what you struggled to do, to love the littlest ones in their worst moments. And maybe we need to hear that. But we need to hear it in a different way.
Because what we hear you saying is that this is easy.
What we hear you saying is that this is the best it gets.
We hear you saying the screaming and clinging, the sleepless nights and shower-less days and diapers, this is easy. This is enjoyable compared to what is coming.
What we hear you saying is that you are doing the real work and by the time you got to that point, there was no real joy left anyway.
We know you are really speaking about your own life more than about ours, we just can’t always hear that because we are too tired or confused or embarrassed. We forget that you too are exhausted, out of solutions, feeling sometimes like your family is spinning out of control.
Folks, we need to stop competing over who has the harder lot in life because for some of us, if this is all the good there is, and if teenagers are what you say they are, we may just not make it. It is helping no one.
We need to remember that though the issues are different, there is a lot of common ground in parenting, regardless of your child’s age. For instance:
1. We both know the middle of the night. I know it with arms full and you know it with arms empty. But we both desire the same thing—our beloved children sleeping safely in their beds, so we can sleep peacefully in ours. If you are tempted to think your situation is harder, next time you are lying awake in bed, waiting to hear the door open and hearing the clock tick instead, drag yourself up, grab the heaviest bag of flour or potatoes you have in the pantry and start to pace. If you are really into it, you can sing and sway. Remember what it feels like to carry the weight of being needed every single moment. Feel the heat of a fever right next to the burn of helplessness. Let your arms tire and your lower back ache with compassion for the parents who do this every night, multiple times through the night, not just on weekends.
And when I finally lay my babies to bed and pull fleecy blankets down to cover the rubber stamped feet of their sleepers that have finally stopped kicking, I’ll stand with empty arms and thank God for the child in the crib in front of me, a child I can hold and protect. I’ll imagine what it is to be in your shoes—needed and “not needed”, arms limp at your side because you can’t sing them back home. I can turn off the porch light; you can’t.
We both know the middle of the night.
2. We fear danger. For parents everywhere, the world is brimming with hazards. For parents of small children, danger takes the form of, well, anything. I distinctly remember sitting at my parents’ kitchen table with my husband after the prenatal class on child safety. We sat there, shell-shocked and terrified, convinced of the inevitability of our yet-to-be-born child’s death by some household calamity. My parents, mildly amused, assured us we would be fine and more importantly, that our baby would be fine.
But the reality is that danger is everywhere. Your own home, supposedly a haven, has dangers lurking everywhere. Electrical outlets, the bathtub, falling dressers, pinching closet doors, toxic substances tucked deep in cupboards. Parking lots, strangers, vaccines, lead paints, play grounds. You can be vigilant about safety but you can’t prevent every fall, every scrape, every germ. My oldest son’s only scar is a ^ shape beside his right eye. He was tripping, about to fall down a flight of concrete stairs, and I swiftly moved to catch him, mid-air. As I did, my thumb nail caught the soft skin by his eye and gouged it. Even in the saving, in the protecting, our children can be scarred. My second son has a scar too, under his right eye. This time it was his fingernail in the middle of the night. Our protection only goes so far.
And you, parent of teenagers, you know danger too. You fear them tripping up in good judgment, falling into bad company, reaching for alcohol or drugs. It’s not that you can put things up on a high shelf out of reach, pull foreign objects out of their mouth with a finger sweep. You fear those toxic relationships, hidden poisons, their drowning in pools of insecurity or rejection. And even your own home, supposed to be a refuge from the big bad world, can have all sorts of hidden dangers in mirrors and money and the big bad internet. You too, can’t protect them from everything. And they too scar from words and actions—yours, theirs, those of others.
Remember we both fear loss and hurt.
3. We want to be loved and appreciated.
Parenting is often a thankless task. It is the unending job. But it is also our high calling—to raise our children to be beautifully, uniquely and unapologetically themselves in a world that loves to corrupt and constrict and conform.
When my son was first born, I dreamed (not as in wistful thinking, but dreamed at night dreamed) that he would wrap his arms around my neck and hug me. How that thrilled me. And part of the beauty of the early years is getting those hugs, being the go-to person. No one can fix things the way you do, no one’s hug means as much. Hurt feelings, scraped knees, stomach bugs come and we are fountains of comfort and security, even if we haven’t brushed our teeth or showered in days. (To clarify, that’s days in which we haven’t showered. We brush our teeth every day. Really we do. Just sometimes not our hair.) But the demands are unending, relentless, sometimes overwhelming.
You parents of teenagers can feel anaemic here. I can understand that. Maybe you aren’t cool. You’ve been replaced. You still need to chauffeur and cook and dish out money and permission but sometimes you are paid back with distance or attitude. Perhaps hugs are few and far between. That must tear at your heart.
May we not seek so much to be loved as to love.
* * *
Parents of young children need to know this isn’t all there is. The basics of every day won’t always be this difficult. Feeding, bathing, sleeping for them and for you, these will ease. The day will come when they will sleep through the night or make their own peanut butter sandwich. You will stop wiping bums but may never stop wiping tears. You need to know what you are doing isn’t just laundry and the same things over and over again—you are doing something significant. You are forming a foundation for the men and women your children will become. You are giving them a solid foundation of love and security to build on.
Maybe you parents of teenagers need to hear that you’ve done a good job and are doing a good job. Maybe you need to worry less and trust that they are good kids. Maybe you need to hear that the choices they make are their choices and don’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Your kids will come back, they will settle down, they will quiet the spinning, the questioning. They will stop fighting; the storms will calm. Emotions will mature. They may even consider you a friend one day and value your counsel. And even if they don’t do any of those things, you can still keep on loving and being a good parent. Your worth is not determined by their behaviour.
Our days look different. I wonder if my boys eat enough; you wonder how yours can eat SO much. We watch our little ones study themselves in the mirror—I big Mommy! You watch yours scrutinize themselves—I’m too big, Mom. Our little ones can’t get enough of our attention; your teenagers act like your opinion is of no consequence. But what we have in common is that our children are gifts.
Wherever you fall on the parenting timeline, remember we’re all on the same side. We are raising the next generation. We need encouragement wherever we can get it and we should give it whenever we can. And, just maybe, that next generation needs to hear less about how hard it is to raise them and more about how great it is to have a chance to walk beside them, no matter their size.