That title seems obvious. But is it, really? Like most obvious life facts — you should floss daily, we’re all going to die, squirrels are evil — the always-advancing age of our children is something we’d rather not think about. So, mostly, we don’t.
In this area, I think parents of young children tend to suffer from lack of imagination as opposed to denial. It’s just impossible to imagine (even if you had the time) your helpless baby or your adorable toddler as a scrawny grade-schooler who reads to him- or herself, is capable of running a vacuum cleaner, and who also occasionally rolls his or her eyes, snaps “I don’t care!” and slams the bedroom door.
I myself can imagine only as far as that grade-schooler, because I have one now. Middle and high school are still shadowy places on the distant horizon — although they’re becoming ominously clearer the more I experience grade school behavior.
“Just wait,” every parent of young children has heard from certain well-meaning (probably) and honest (undoubtedly) parents of grown children, “it only gets harder.”
As a parent of four, with one foot in early toddlerhood and one in early grade school, I’m not convinced that “harder” is the right word. There’s not much that’s “harder” than waking up every two hours throughout the night to nurse an infant after enduring toddler tantrums, managing sibling squabbles, and serving as activities coordinator/chauffeur/errand runner all day. Granted, I speak with limited authority — I have yet to see a child through to adulthood — but I think those experienced parents are trying to say that the struggle moves from the physical realm (How do I stay alert and lug the grocery bags and my children?) to the mental/emotional realm.
By mental/emotional realm, I mean a little something like this:
You are standing outside a door that your 7-year-old has just slammed, after rolling her eyes and shouting “I don’t care!” The precipitating event changes (you weren’t properly attentive to her artwork, you let a sibling share first at dinner, you used the wrong tone of voice when making a request), but the underlying issue is always the same: she doubts your love. She’s angry with you for falling short, and she’s also angry with herself for still needing you. It spiraled out of control, and now you stand in the hall, thinking: She needs discipline; I can’t allow her to talk to me like that. I need to set boundaries of respectful behavior, to be tough. But also, she needs to know I love her, no matter how she behaves. She needs affection and reassurance.
And you think that there’s probably some perfect combination — if you could just balance the right amount of toughness with love, or find the exact words — and the lock will spring and her eyes will light up again and you’ll hug and she’ll mend her ways and become a kind, well-behaved, well-adjusted adult. Otherwise, you imagine, she’s in for a lifetime of conflict, broken relationships, hundreds of dollars spent on therapy and pharmaceuticals.
You feel all this, because you’ve been there, on the other side of that door — it seems like just minutes ago. But you can’t quite remember what would have made the lock spring back then; you only remember the hurts that you’re still getting over.
That’s the mental/emotional realm.
[Side note: “I don’t care,” with its dishonest bluster that hides anger behind indifference and shuts down further discussion, has become my least favorite phrase. I understand now why Maurice Sendak devoted an entire children’s book — the classic Pierre — to its dark potential. I’m convinced that most of the world’s ills can be blamed on “I don’t care.”]
What the “It only gets harder” parents never told me is that adolescence — by which I mean the basic Webster’s Dictionary definition of “the state or process of growing up” — seems to begin around 1st grade. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Now prepubertal, bigger, more interactive, and involved with friends, the emotionally developed 7- and 8-year-old child now uses his increasing cognitive strengths and communication skills to plot a developmental trajectory toward mature independence and autonomy. His newly formed superego, or conscience, allows the understanding of rules, relationships, and social mores. Moral development progresses. Early experiences with separation foster individuation.
Or, to quote my college developmental psychology textbook: “Parents report that children at this stage are often sulky, depressed, or passively noncooperative, or that they avoid them after an angry conflict.”
I thought I’d have more time to prepare before the eye rolls, the slammed doors, the “I don’t care”s.
When we were first-time parents, an older friend of my husband’s told him, “All you really have to worry about between birth and 2 years is keeping them alive.” This is good advice. The following two years are spent enduring tantrums. Then, after roughly one year of peace, you find yourself trying to mold them into decent human beings — but it’s too late! They’re already pushing away.
In a jaw-droppingly beautiful essay in the September 29, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, the writer Meghan Daum hashes through her lack of desire to have children and her experiences as a court-appointed advocate in the foster-care system. One of her conclusions is that “maybe creating a diversion from aging is in fact much of the point of parenting.”
I love her writing, but I completely disagree: Since becoming a parent, I have become more acutely aware of aging. It’s not only that parenting has aged me prematurely, with its stress, sleep deprivation, and the physical toll of carrying 20 pounds of child plus 50 pounds of diaper bag. It’s impossible to deny time’s progression when every day my children unfold upwards and outwards a little bit more; I search their baby photos for clues, traces of who they are now, and I can barely recognize today’s child inside the infant they were.
Nothing in my life has forced me to grow up more than parenting.
Working out how to relate to a grade-schooler is only the latest way in which parenting is grinding me into a grown-up. To say that it’s humbling seems far too trite. I’m learning for the thousandth time that life is not all about me; when I’m on one side of that slammed door, if I insist completely on me — on my idea of justice, on what I want and need, on how I feel — then I blow it.
Instead, I’m learning that sometimes it’s best to let perfect justice take a backseat to mercy, because that’s a developing person on the other side of the door. I’m learning to choose my words with care and bite my tongue often, because my words carry extra weight when the recipient is still acquiring a vocabulary. And I’m learning the awful truth that it’s entirely possible to dislike your offspring on occasion, and that the grittiest work of love is not pulling away in moments of dislike, because that’s not an option: This is your child.
Above all, I’m learning that I will blow it, which is okay since it’s not all about me. I remind myself of the power of apology, the resilience of children, and the grace of the other voices in my child’s life.
Sometimes I think that parenting is kind of like what they say about doing volunteer work in Africa: I’m probably getting more out of it than they are.