Almost every week, another parent writes an article apologizing to the masses for judging others before spawning offspring themselves. This Popsugar piece, clickbait though it might be, is making the rounds again. In it, the enlightened mama tells about how she judged parents for showing up at Target in the middle of winter sans shoes—and other horrifying things parents do in the name of survival.
In the spirit of parents who judge out of ignorance and parents who know enough not to, here’s a few myths about parenting young children, from a mom who bore four children in six years.
1. Your Current Stage of Parenting Is No Big Deal
You know those people. The ones standing behind you at Target, or even the ones at your dining room table. Your toddler is throwing a temper tantrum (not my little person; someone else’s, of course), and they lean in, shake their head, and say: “Just wait until ___; it’s so much ___.Wait until they’re in middle school—they’re busier. Wait until they’re teenagers—they’re crankier. Wait until they’re driving—it’s scarier.”
I’m sure all these things are true. But since we parents of young children haven’t been through that experience yet, we are like a disappointing witness on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” We can neither confirm nor deny. All we know is, for us, raising that oldest child through that particular part of his or her life seems difficult because we’re new at that specific stage.
I’m sure having a 17 year-old drive off for the night with his friends is completely nerve-wracking, but since my boy is only eight, I thought that time I couldn’t find him at the store for a few minutes (which felt like an hour) was rather disturbing, too. Are the implications the same? The consequences? Of course not. But your perspective—and mine—are wholly different and unique.
I once had a friend tell me, while I nursed my youngest child (women gab during feedings, men, I’m sorry if that made you squirm), and while my other three who were under the age of 6 (read: barely self-sufficient) were tearing around the room, that this was nothing compared to the stage she was at. After all, all three of her kids were playing sports. I’m sure scheduling, financing, and chauffeuring all that activity was exhausting and exciting, but all I could think of was, “Hey, man, at least all your kids are going to the bathroom on their own at that point?”
A caveat: In some instances, some perspective is vital. Some parents need to get their head out of their own houses. Recently, I befriended a mom who had lost her toddler to cancer. Around that time I got a text from another friend complaining that she must again help her child with too much homework. I didn’t say anything to the latter about the former, but it sure gave me an attitude check, and it felt a lot like whiplash.
In most cases, constantly telling a person his or her experience isn’t hard or worthy of discussion because it’s not like the next stage of parenting—however unfortunate and true this may be—only belittles that person’s know-how and can hamper the joy they can find where they are. Plus, unless you can kindly offer the perspective my grieving friend can, it makes you sound like a selfish know-it-all.
2. You Have This Parenting Thing Down
I wish we could all just get together and sit around a bonfire and admit once and for all: We. Know. Nothing. Don’t get me wrong. It’s really nifty to walk around parenting like you have a clue and to talk to your child when others are within earshot like you’re the authority and you’re raising this person like the boss that you are, but I know you’re faking it. Because I’m faking it.
I read a lot about parenting, I seek counsel from more experienced parents, I pray about my attitude toward my kids, but let’s just gather and admit sometimes: Hi, my name is Nicole. And I’m clueless about parenting. Kind of liberating, isn’t it? Now can I tell you the issue I’m having with my daughter and you can talk to me about the thing you’re dealing with your son and we can just support each other and brainstorm without feeling like there’s an expert in the room?
I used to do a little writing for a guy who enjoyed a few decades worth of notoriety as a wonderful child psychologist. James Dobson’s books, radio program, and parenting advice are the stuff of legend. He said parenting would be hard—and everyone learned it was once they started doing it, and ran to the nearest bookstore to buy one of his books on the subject.
Then he had kids.
I don’t know if he’s ever taken any advice he gave—and I’m not insinuating any of the advice he gave was false—but it became clear from some of the things his children experienced that it’s one thing to advise based on research and graduate school, and it’s another when it’s you and your kid hashing it out in the living room.
During a conversation with a friend who is a psychiatrist and who had the most adorable wife and incredible three adult children I’d ever seen—all kind, successful, and mature—I leaned in and whispered, “So, what’s the secret?” He shrugged and said: “I don’t know. We just did the best we could do.” If those guys don’t know, what course can the rest of us take but to remain humble, pray often, seek counsel, and just do the best we can.
3. Small Children Are All Fun and No Games
A few months ago, I enjoyed a rare, quiet conversation with a dear friend. Now a mom of two, she sighed into the receiver, disappointed: “I imagined playing at the park and giggling while reading picture books at the library. I didn’t expect day after day of changing diapers, doing laundry, cleaning up spit-up, and then doing the same thing all over again the next day.”
Surprise! A lot of parenting is boring. And monotonous. And banal. And minute. You think, “Really? Where are the unicorns? The ice cream cones? The endless sunny days? The laughter on the merry-go round?” It’s not like any other job, but sometimes it helps me to think of parenting as if it were any other job. Is every day at your job satiating and fulfilling? I hope it is, but it probably isn’t. Some days probably feel a little boring and a little like the thing you did yesterday.
Parenting little ones feels like that, too. Especially before they hit age four. Sometimes it’s hard to have fun when your four kids get the flu the same night, as mine did recently, but I must say, between gross clean-up stuff there was a deep sense of rightness, contentment in my soul, and I might even use the word joy. Not necessarily fun and games, but a fulfillment that comes from doing your work, your calling with as much zeal and effort as you can.
4. Small Children Are All Joy and No Fun
On the other hand, there was a piece in New York Times Magazine in 2010 with a story whose title has remained imprinted on my brain for life: “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.” (If you read that and struggle to relate even a tiny bit, your kids are either magical fairies or you’re so optimistic you make Mary Poppins look grumpy.) I will say, though: Young kids can be fun! Yes, they are work, messy work; they are distracting and loud and strange, and they make odd noises and they say embarrassing things and they wander and get lost, and generally make your mind feel like a large, icky, self-renewing cobweb—but despite all that, I enjoy my kids.
A silly example: Recently, I made pancakes for my children and, as is the unfortunate case sometimes, my son ate a bite and found a hair. A long hair that was definitely mine. I felt terrible, but he was gracious and said it was no big deal, and after discarding the thing kept eating. But I decided to make light of it, probably to cover from my own embarrassment, and I formed a megaphone with my hands, put it up to my mouth and yelled: “Get your pancakes! Fresh, hot pancakes, covered in hair!” My three older children giggled for 20 minutes, and I laughed so hard I cried. True story. (Now don’t tell anyone else.)
But beyond breakfast outbursts, we’ve splashed in ocean waves, walked where former presidents did (such is the wonder of living in Northern Virginia), waved at the White House, eaten more ice cream cones on hot days than I can count, and ran through enough park playgrounds to last a lifetime. We’ve piled into movie theaters for $1 when we were broke, we’ve crammed into an airplane to visit family. If you have kids, there will be fun. And joy, too. It makes the yucky parts worthwhile.
Until we get to the teen years, right?