To New Parents, From A Parent of Teens
We live in a time where waiting until your 30s or 40s to have children seems more common than not. If I’m making small-talk in the grocery checkout line or at a cocktail party and mention that I have not one, but two kids in high school, the response is almost universally shock. “You’re not old enough to have high schoolers!” Well, obviously I’m old enough to have high schoolers—without having had them as a high schooler, myself, even—and it’s not even that I look especially youthful. It’s just that lots of women my age just started having kids a few years ago, or only in the last decade.
I was 26 when my daughter was born. Now she’s headed towards 17 (which means I’m 43); I’ve gained a bunch of weight and wrinkles and gray hair, and as my very favorite hobby is sleeping I will be the first to tell you that if I had an infant at this stage in my life, I’d go insane. I feel old, a lot of the time. I also feel out of place, a lot of the time, because so many of my same-aged peers are in a different life stage than we are. Two of my coworkers had beautiful baby boys this year, and our family gained two gorgeous nieces, too. I don’t want to be that annoying person who’s all, “Oh, just you wait!” or “Let me tell you what it’s like,” because one of the most hard-won lessons of parenting, for me, has been the realization that you just have no idea, heading into it, what awaits you or what you can handle. Besides, no one wants to hear supposed wisdom when there are tiny toes to count and soft bellies to kiss. This is their time to hold their babies, inhale that delicious aroma of hope and promise and organic baby wash, and believe that everything will be perfect.
If I was going share some sort of pseudo-wisdom with those new parents, though, without fear of rolled eyes or hurt feelings, I know what I would say.
I would say that parenting is joyful, terrifying, fulfilling, and rage-inducing. I would say that the hokey “the toughest job you’ll ever love” thing is true, but also that there may be plenty of times that love feels pretty far down on the list of available feelings.
I would say that no matter how or when you come to this parenting gig, children have a way of holding up a mirror to our deepest secrets and fears, even ones we were sure had already been handled or tucked away. Sometimes being a parent will bring out the absolute best in you; you’ll want to be a better person, and more often than you might realize, you are. On the other hand, sometimes being a parent forces you to confront the ways in which you are broken (usually while fervently pleading with the deity of your choosing that you don’t break your kid) and lacking.
I would say that the day will come when you open your mouth and one of your parents’ voices comes out. This may delight you or it may make you cringe. Maybe both. Don’t worry; it will happen more than once, so you’ll have plenty of chances to experience the full spectrum of emotions from nostalgia to horror.
I would say that there will come a point in this parenting gig when you realize how much you can’t fix, and that realization will leave you breathless. At the same time, you will probably remember an instance or two or ten when you judged another parent for something which you believed was their fault, which you now (perhaps with some shame) realize was not only uncharitable and unhelpful, but likely made an already difficult time even worse for them. It’s true that we’re all parenting experts until we have children, and even then, it may be years before we face the stuff that makes colic look like a sunny day in the park. Be kind to other parents. Be kind to yourself, too.
I would say that there will be times when you don’t like your child, and some of those times, you may wonder if there’s something wrong with you, or with them. It may be impossible to picture, as you cuddle your precious infant in your arms, but it will happen. It’s okay. Accept your feelings, but moderate your behavior.
I would say that there will be times when you look at your child and see a stranger and question every parenting decision you’ve ever made. But there will also be times when you behold your adult-sized child and it occurs to you that someday you could be friends. Not just “friends,” but real friends—good, close friends who survived the war together and enjoy each other in spite of it all. That time may still be a long way off, but if you can picture it—at all—that’s a victory. Trust me.
I would say that you will do and say things you never imagined, and you won’t even be sure they’re the right choices, at the time, but you’ll make decisions as best you can and hope for a decent batting average. Sometimes you’ll get it right; sometimes your choices will be catastrophic. I would say that if you’re not already someone who’s comfortable admitting when you’re wrong and offering a heartfelt apology, start cultivating that skill right now, because you will need to apologize to your child countless times over the years. If you do, you’ll both get better and stronger. If you don’t, the trust needed to grow a relationship will erode and create a chasm between you.
I would say that we talk about wanting our children to be healthy and happy, but we’re often terrible at teaching them the tools most likely to result in health and happiness. Or we teach them to the best of our ability and set a great example and they still just don’t get it, and then we blame ourselves. So again, here’s what we need to do: Be kind. Be kind to them, be kind to ourselves, be kind to those we love, be kind to strangers. Keep being kind even when others are mean. Keep being kind even when our children seem bound and determined to demonstrate that kindness doesn’t matter to them. Keep being kind even when your heart is breaking.
I would say that I hope that baby in your arms grows into a strong, confident, capable adult with only the tiniest of hiccups along the way, but no matter how things go, you can handle it. Even if you’re hiding in your closet, sobbing, convinced you can’t? You can. You will. You will let that child go hundreds of times over the years, and many of those times you’ll be convinced they’ll never come back. But you’ll do it. And chances are, they’ll come back again, and you’ll let them go again (and again).
I would say that someday your baby will be a teenager and you’ll look at other people’s new babies and be amazed. You will be a different person than you were when your journey began. You will be envious of the innocence of the new, gobsmacked parent. You will be tired, and frustrated, and worried, and sporadically triumphant, but most often bewildered. You will also feel lucky, and hopeful. Maybe not all the time, but enough.
I would say: It’s a very bumpy ride, but it’s amazing.