“Little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems. Just you wait!” warned the more experienced moms; their condescending tones wagging fingers of dread in my peaked, sleep-deprived face. Sheesh! I heard a lot of that when my children were young. Now, however, with the older ones launching and the youngest one already in middle school, and as someone who treats moms of all ages, I can confidently challenge that unintentionally obnoxious cliché.
First off, I’m sure they meant no harm. It’s just something people say, but it’s a rather insensitive comment to make to young moms who are undoubtedly struggling to navigate the challenges of tending a small brood. And even if that’s the perspective of some people, is it really helpful to say it?
Secondly, and this is important: it’s not necessarily true. Every family has its own story, struggles, flops and triumphs. And I wouldn’t wish troubled teens on anyone (not even that supercilious woman with the perfect-looking children who gave me and my inside-out dress a condescending frown on a long-ago meet-the-teacher night).
There may be some parents who say that they would trade their attitudinal adolescents back in for bouncing bundles of adorability, if they could. But my own experience, along with that of many women I know professionally and socially, leads me to the opposite conclusion.
Wanna know the truth? Babies and little kids mean constant exhaustion, sporadic teething, recurring ear infections or maybe strep—again; thousands of diapers, indiscriminate distribution of all manner of body fluids everywhere, crying, whining, tantrums, mess always, and little to no discretionary time. If you turn your back for even a moment they are liable to touch, break, ingest, throw, jump off of or into all manner of hazardous objects. And I haven’t even mentioned the irrational fears, meltdowns in the produce aisle and chronic bickering; I’ve literally seen chess played as a contact sport. Most of us aren’t financially or professionally established yet during those years, so there never seems to be quite enough money, time or sanity to relax. The marriage is also newer, so there’s no long-standing foundation on which to build these sloppy, precarious edifices. And most of us don’t have advanced degrees in psychology, education, medicine or home organization, so we lack the experience and confidence of veteran moms and professionals. And don’t even get me started on the mom-shaming, insecurity and constant fear of being scrutinized by “everyone” and then being labeled a (gasp) “bad mother.” Those are the “joys” of the little kid years.
Believe it or not, one fine day they eventually start to evolve into people: somewhat coherent, sentient humans with whom you can converse, reason, banter and even threaten or bribe when desperate. (Don’t judge; we all resort to that once in a while.) They suddenly have personalities, questions and interests. You can teach them to say “please” and “thank you.” They assume responsibility for all aspects of their own hygienic maintenance. And some of them even reciprocate (or at least tolerate) hugs and kisses.
I don’t mean to paint a rose-colored picture of the future; raising older kids presents its own challenges. Teenagers stay up later at night, so you lose the quiet evenings alone with your spouse. Tuitions go up, and so do the food and clothing bills. They start having to contend with social issues and peer pressure. They ask more complex philosophical questions.
When parenting teens, you gotta use your no
odle. But by this time you no longer have a stain of gunky spittle on the shoulder of every single garment in your closet. You are (hopefully) sleeping for consecutive stretches of five hours or more without listening out for that dreaded nocturnal whimper. You are free to use the restroom all by yourself, sans micro-fists pounding on the door. You can go out at night without begging the local teens for the privilege of giving them your money to tolerate your offspring while they raid your fridge. And you can now casually hop in your car solo, with all the carefree liberation of someone who doesn’t have to wrestle little Houdini into an 18-point harness car seat. You can enjoy Shabbos meals that don’t devolve into random acts of mass violence and property destruction.
Unbelievably, your children can now dress, feed and toilet themselves. They can do chores and help with errands, and babysit for each other! You can go on family outings to places other than the playground, and “vacations” at venues other than Dutch Wonderland (where we literally went for nine years straight). You can play games with them that you enjoy too, and not just Candy Land. You can share and discuss books and articles with substance, not necessarily penned by Dr. Seuss. They become friends with each other and with each other’s friends. If you play your cards right and get really lucky, you may even enjoy their company.
As parents, we are not all going to experience the stages of our progenies’ development in the same way. Some mothers bond immediately and infatuatedly to their newborns, and “wish they could stay tiny forever.” Others are won over by charmingly mischievous toddlers. Another camp might prefer the sweet innocence of the elementary school set. But I am here to tell you that if your oxytocin hasn’t begun to flow just yet, you might be someone who enjoys her offspring most as they mature and become more intellectually accessible. And if the teen years are tough, well, there are always the grandkids to enjoy.
Young moms, I know it’s rough and maddening and exhausting and exhilarating and more than a little crazy-making. I also know that you’re getting a lot of messages and mussar and unsolicited clichés about “cherishing every moment,” “it goes by so quickly” and “one day you’ll look back on these days nostalgically.” Blah, blah, blah. But do you know what else people say? “They’re only young once!”
*This article was originally published in Ami magazine.