Parents can miss the point of childhood

October 2, 2013

One of the great fictions embraced by new parents, mostly out of desperation, is the following hope: “It will get easier when . . .”

The “when” can be any number of things. When they sleep through the night. When they can dress themselves. When they go to school.

Go ahead believing that if you want, but I’m here to tell you it simply isn’t true.

Every parent imagines the pressure will ease with the next milestone. I remember thinking there was nothing more difficult than leaving my 6-month-old twins when I returned to work. A far wiser, veteran mother disabused me — perhaps a bit harshly — of this notion.

“It’s so much harder,” she told me, “when they can talk and they say things like ‘Please don’t go to work, Mommy.’ ” She was right.

And so it is with every stage.

You can’t wait until your family room is no longer cluttered with bouncy seats, mechanical swings and play mats. Until they are replaced by tiny Lego blocks that guarantee you won’t walk barefoot in your house for the next three years.

You can’t wait till they can dress themselves, and then you have to cope with what they decide to wear.

You can’t wait till they’re no longer begging to be read “Goodnight Moon,” until you have to bribe them to tackle their summer reading.

You can’t wait to be finished with the elaborate, expensive birthday parties at indoor soccer fields or places where everyone can dress up as princesses. Except those two-hour extravaganzas give way to sleepovers. Eighteen hours of a dozen 10-year-olds sleep-deprived and sugared up is no parent’s idea of fun.

It’s not that each stage is harder than the previous one. That’s certainly not the case. It’s infinitely easier to tell a child to get dressed than to wrestle a long-sleeve shirt onto the squirming arms of an 18-month-old. But every stage comes with a trade-off you don’t think about while you’re anticipating how great the next phase will be.

Having sons who can drive has allowed me to largely retire my chauffeur’s cap. Their ability to get themselves to school means it’s possible for me to make it to an 8 a.m. yoga class at work. Ommmmm.

But last week I received this text message: “Mom, we got hit on our way to school. We’re okay; some damage. Car that hit us drove off.”

So here’s the lesson, for new parents and, yes, even not-so-new-parents. When asked “What’s the best stage of childhood?” the answer should always be “This one.” That goes even for the terrible twos and the tough teenage years. Because your children will quickly leave whatever phase they’re in and move onto another one. And once it’s over, it’s over for good.

After all, the words “A comb and a brush and bowlful of mush and a little old lady whispering hush” are enough to set on edge the teeth of just about every toddler parent, who, no doubt, is convinced that Margaret Wise Brown was some demon-woman hellbent on turning parental brains to mush. Years later, you’ll come across the book, perhaps a little worn from all those nights of reading, tucked away in a box somewhere. And you’ll pull it out and turn the pages, remembering the small body snuggled in the crook of your arm.

You just might find yourself wishing for one more night like that.

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