I’ve sometimes been asked, “Which stage of parenting have you enjoyed the most?” or “Which stage of parenting are you looking forward to?”
I honestly believe that in one sense the answer to those questions should always be, “This stage, right now.” I’m a big believer in living in the moment, enjoying the stage of life you’re at rather than looking nostalgically back to the past or impatiently ahead to the future.
One beautiful summer day when the kids were about one and three, we were on the beach at Eastport playing in the sand. One of the kids started to cry about something, and a man passing by with older children smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry, this stage will be over soon!”
I smiled back at him, but I was sort of taken aback. Sure, my kid was crying at that moment, but did he assume that because of that I’d want to skate past that whole era of toddlerhood, of digging in the sand and making sand castles and splashing tiny toes in the icy water just to hear the children shriek? I was horrified by the idea of a life in which I would be constantly gritting my teeth and saying, “This’ll be over soon,” just to get on to the next phase.
Every stage of parenting, every stage of childhood has its own joys and its own frustrations. I really do try to immerse myself completely in each one and enjoy it for what it is. But I also do believe that, objectively, we may now be going through the “best stage” in terms of the children’s age being the best fit for my actual parenting skills.
I’ve never had a thing for babies or really small children, although I loved my own kids very much at that stage. For some parents, that is the “best time,” when the children are completely dependent upon them. I cherish wonderful memories (and photographs!) of holding, rocking and nursing my babies at that age, of watching them learn to walk and talk and explore the world around them. But when Emma says to me, as she sometimes does, “Did you love us when we were babies? Do you wish we were babies again?” I can honestly say, “I loved you when you were babies, but every day I love you more, and I have never wished you could go back to being a baby.”
I like my children’s growing independence. I loved leaving the diaper stage behind! I miss nursing them a little; I don’t miss spooning sloppy baby food into unwilling mouths. The sight of Christopher pouring himself a bowl of cereal or Emma buttering a slice of toast is a wonderful thing.
In my pre-parenting days, when I imagined myself with children, I imagined children about the age they are now — seven and nine, elementary-school aged. Old enough to ride their own bikes, but still young enough to want to bike ride with their parents. Old enough to carry on intelligent and funny conversations, but still young enough to want to talk to me. Old enough to swim in the deep end, but young enough to run excitedly up to me afterwards, dripping and shouting: “I swam in the deep end Mom! Did you see me?” “Did you watch me go off the diving board Mom? I did it three times!”
I don’t want to idealize this stage of childhood. It has its challenges and frustrations too. I do my best to be a cool mom, loving and fun and just a little frustrated and frazzled. In other words, I try to be Molly Weasley, but there are moments when I seem to have turned into Bellatrix Lestrange instead. When I say this is the parenting stage I’m best at, I certainly don’t want to imply that I’m anywhere close to perfect.
Nor are my kids. That growing independence often clashes with my need to offer help and guidance. For every day when the children play well together, inventing complex costumes, storylines, and even newspapers to chronicle the adventures of their “Hero Bears,” there’s another day when the sibling squibbling is so severe I consider the possibility that despite our happy marriage, Jason and I may be forced to separate and take one kid each, just so they won’t be under the same roof. The other day my heart swelled with pride at the sight of both kids working happily together at their newest chore — washing and drying the dishes. But I also remembered the anguished cries one of those same children had emitted just a little earlier: “It’s not FAIR!!! You can’t MAKE me wash dishes!!!!! I WON’T do it!!!!!!!!” (I won that round by pointing out that if you don’t take a turn washing dishes, you don’t get to eat. Even then, he wasn’t quite sure he should capitulate, until he got hungry enough. Oh, and for those parents reading this who had their kids trained to wash dishes by age four and whose kids are now competently helping cook supper — thank you. Thank you for your contribution. Now go away. No … farther than that).
As I walked the dog down to the playground the other day and watched the kids on their bikes riding ahead, I thought, “This is it — this is the golden age of their childhood.” And at once I thought that I don’t want to cling to this stage, to try to keep them here when they are ready to move on, to sigh when they are teenagers and say, “I wish they were seven and nine again!” Having found the parenting stage I’m best suited for, I don’t want to impose that preference for them — for their motion is always, as it should be, forward into the future, getting ready for the next stage, even if it’s one I’m a little less prepared to handle.
All I want to do is live in this moment, recognize this golden age while I’m living it, and thank God for every minute I have with my kids. Even the moments when we all make each other just a little crazy.