My oldest child is turning ten tomorrow. I have been a parent for decade.
The years have not flown by, and I'm not in wonder at where the time has gone. Slowly, day by day, my baby boy has grown up. He is someone to be proud of, and I couldn't be more sincere when I say that day in, day out, I thoroughly enjoy his company.
I do feel, though, that I ought to have something to show for a decade of parenthood. Because I have five, soon six, kids, I often get asked for parenting advice. I never felt like much of an expert; I hadn't been at it all that long. I've also long held that I'll never blog about parenting, because I don't think it's that interesting and everyone has a totally different idea of the 'right' way to do it, and different families are satisfied with entirely different outcomes. How do you define a successful child? The answers are as varied as the stars.
Here, in no particular order, are ten things I've learned in a decade. I don't think that's too lofty a goal - one thing learned per year. And while these are Things I Know For Sure, they may not be true for your family, your household, your life. That's cool. I understand.
- You can't rush a milestone. They'll talk when they're ready, walk when they're ready, roll over and crawl when they are ready. They will not do it a day sooner than they are ready, no matter how much you fret and no matter how many times you ask your friends for advice on Facebook. This goes for potty training, too - if you rush it, it will suck.
- Little girls can get away with cheap shoes, because they will have lots of shoes and each pair gets worn less frequently. Don't ever bother with cheap sneakers for boys - it never works out to savings in the end.
- You answer to nobody, except your husband and your kids. It literally does not matter what one single solitary other person ON EARTH thinks of your parenting, or the choices you make as a family. It's not their life to live. They don't have to deal with the consequences of your decisions - you do. So think it through, work it all out in your head, and go for it. Hold hands, and jump in. Do what's best for your family, as it is in that moment, and don't look back - but don't be afraid to adjust.
- Kids love open-ended toys. Blocks, Legos, dolls, Play-Doh, buckets, art supplies, matchbox cars, cardboard boxes, dress-up - anything that they can project onto. Single-purpose toys rarely have staying power, and they will make your house a mess and your kids slaves to clutter. Edit, edit, edit, and be mindful of what you bring in.
- You don't have to fix everything. Let your kids stew in a problem, let them work out a fight, let them tend to their own boo boos. It will teach them confidence. Don't teach them that they need to move to arbitration every time there is a conflict. It will handicap them.
- Take off training wheels the very first day you see the kid pedal a few times and stay on the two main tires. Don't let them learn to ride crooked. Don't let them become accustomed to the crutch. (This sounds like a metaphor, but I'm seriously only talking about training wheels.)
- Parenting young children is only a season. The timing is not flexible. You can only parent your young kids while your kids are young. If fully participating in those years is important to you, you must prioritize and figure out what other distractions you can move to another season in your life. This may include work, hobbies - lots of different things. I've heard this attitude scoffed at as martyrdom, but it's not. It's a conscious allocation of a scarce resource: time. I wanted to make a quilt, I wanted to be a more regular blogger, I wanted to return to school, but I'm not willing to do any of those things at the expense of shooing away a kid who is trying to tell me about the cool lizard they just saw in the backyard. It's only a few years. I can make a quilt later when they are busy with other things and no longer need me to get their juice for them.
- Everybody says two is awful, but that's just because they haven't had three- or four-year-olds yet. When they're two they're still kind of cute and squishy. When they're a bit older, and they defy you, you can't help but know it's intentional, because they can talk and stuff. Just warning those who haven't yet been there.
- For the love of everything, teach your kids to do chores. Teach them that their usefulness is now, not somewhere in the future. Remind them that they are important in the family, and that they are capable NOW. Let two-year-olds fold washcloths and wipe windows. Let four-year-olds entertain the baby and put away the dishes. Let six-year-olds move the laundry and dust. Let the ten-year-old clean the pool and make dinner. Teach them and train them, and 'inspect what you expect', but remember: They are capable.
- Limit access to media. Just do it. Childhood is short; it's not necessary for an 8-year-old to be up on 'current events' and be able to sing the latest nasty Rhianna song. Filter the adult world from the child's world. They have time enough to understand war, sex, violence, and politics when they are older and have more perspective and context of the world around them.
And one more thing, a bonus, I suppose: your children are on loan to you. They don't belong to you, and you only really get them for a little while, before they grow up - like they were always supposed to! - and start their own lives. After that, you have to share them. I want my kids to grow up and fully embrace their adulthood, their families, their spouses. I want them to cleave. That is my definition of success - kids who grow into happy, self-sustaining adults.
The unfortunate corollary to this is that your time with them may be much, much shorter than you planned. We take all the tomorrows for granted, and tomorrow doesn't always come. Their adulthood is not promised. There was a lot of internet chit-chat about this post a few months back, about how it was okay to not 'carpe diem' - moms forwarding it around like it was exactly what they needed to affirm that their misery was okay, because other moms were miserable, too. I disagree. Carpe the crap out of the diem. Be mindful even when you don't feel like it. Find the good. Let the rest go. You owe it to yourself to curate happy memories, messy memories, the memories of days imperfect and days glorious - the whole lot of it. If you ever find yourself trying to piece it back together, from memories, you won't want to be the mom who didn't bother, or who planned on looking back fondly after it was all finished. You may not get a chance to finish. Does that make you panicky? Does it make you uncomfortable? I'm just the messenger here. Ignoring it doesn't make it any less true.
It's taken me this long, a decade, to embrace my role as a parent as a definition of self. I always thought I needed something else, that Mom should be my side job or nobody would realize that I am smart and funny and know a thing or two about the world. I'm so happy to say that I've outgrown that. I am a wife to my husband, and a mother to my children, and that is enough. Doing those things well is enough.
Happy birthday, MD. Can't wait - can't WAIT! - to see what the next ten years bring.