Parenting doesn’t necessarily become easier as your kids grow older, but it’s certainly different.
I’ve been a parent for not far short of 14 years. Sometimes it seems like Isaac was only born yesterday. At other times, the parenting journey feels like a life sentence with no chance of parole. But as challenging as it often is, I’m realising I should take more time to enjoy the positives because this constantly evolving journey won’t go on forever.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The stair-gate years
Our children are separated by gaps of 25 and 28 months, which means that over a six-year spell we essentially always had one sub-two-year-old in the house. I have the grey hairs to prove it.
The initial baby phase is traumatic enough. Constant nappy changes and feeds. Sleep deprivation. All the firsts: the first smile and the first word; crawling and walking, and later swimming; the countless other developmental milestones.
Those are tough months. As new parents, we cling on to the hope that things will get easier. But for every problem we solved, a new one would pop up in its place. All those sharp furniture corners waiting to poke an unsuspecting eye out. Electric sockets beckoning prying fingers. Cupboards full of cleaning chemicals. Danger around every corner.
There were times when I half-expected to find Wile E Coyote with his latest Acme device lying in wait, ready to pounce on our unsuspecting toddler.
We fitted the foam corner bumpers and socket covers. We child-proofed the cupboard doors. No anthropomorphised cartoon threats to our kids’ well-being materialised. For years, the biggest threat to their safety was, well, me and my bumbling incompetence.
More than anything, though, I hated our stair-gates. It was almost enough to make me want to live in a bungalow. We put up with the aesthetic compromises elsewhere. But the constant manoeuvring around the gates at the top and bottom of our stairs drove me crazy. Opening them one-handed while juggling a laundry basket. Impaling myself on the sticky-outy bits when I failed to notice that they had swung silently back into my path. Getting my fingers trapped in the locking mechanism.
Let me tell you, the day we decided that Kara was big enough for us to remove the stair-gates at long last was one of the happiest days of my parenting life.
It still is.
Disposing of the gates represented the removal of a physical barrier for Kara. It also metaphorically unlocked the path to freedom for us.
At least, it did until we realised we were inheriting a whole new set of challenges.
The tween years
The kids’ tween years were a little bit emotional and a lot about tackling logistical challenges.
Many of these revolved around school. Saying goodbye to nursery. Buying uniforms and school shoes (and watching them grow out of them within minutes). The first day of primary school; thankfully, in our case, accompanied by a complete lack of trauma.
There was the challenge of parents’ evenings. After each of these, we would spend hours deciphering the meaning of what the teachers had said (and what they didn’t say).
Things suddenly became more complicated when Toby and Kara moved up to primary school too. Three sets of parents’ evenings. Nativity plays. Concerts. Three of everything.
And then there’s the challenge of juggling three kids, none of them old enough to be left home alone – we’ve seen the film, we know what can happen! – once they start doing different activities at different times. Beavers, Brownies and Cubs. Gym, martial arts, 58 different sports. Training, matches, competitions and tournaments. Birthday parties and play-dates.
Uber was founded in 2009. For us, it felt like DadTaxi and MumTaxi were founded at about the same time. Particularly on Saturdays, we would ferry various combinations of kids to six or seven different events in a single day. It was a miracle that we never once took the wrong kid(s) to the wrong place or forgot to pick them up.
Never mind the army, if you want someone to organise a particularly complex logistical solution, give it to a parent with five or more children. If you can organise them while retaining your sanity, you can organise anything.
The rollercoaster years
Having said that, while keeping the lives of three pre-teens on track seemed at the time like the most complex parenting challenge possible, I’m not sure that’s actually the case.
If the tween years was like trying to keep 20 plates spinning, then dealing with secondary school-age kids is more like Russian roulette, but where every chamber is loaded.
Don’t get me wrong, having independent kids is great. At weekends, I can take Kara to her football matches while Isaac takes himself off to meet friends. Heather can still go out while Toby stays at home doing homework (or, more likely, playing games on his phone).
All those logistical conundrums of previous years are now simpler. (Although I’m still wishing I’d bought shares in Dad/MumTaxi, which is still going strong.)
The problems now are more behavioural than organisational. With greater independence comes shifting boundaries and less automatic acceptance of parental diktats. They’re growing up so fast and constantly changing.
This is something I’ve struggled with, a lot. It’s not the kids’ fault. The rules of the game are changing constantly. In fact, there are no rules as such. We’re making this up as we go along. The kids have to learn they can’t have everything their way all at once. We have to learn to trust them more and give them their freedom while still knowing when we have to draw a firm line.
It changes almost from week to week. There is no one right answer. Indeed, the answer for each child is rarely the same. As they grow and diverge as individuals, it’s a real challenge to find the right balance between consistent and flexible parenting. Sometimes frustration bubbles over into anger. And that’s just Kara, never mind me.
Parenting older kids is definitely a rollercoaster ride. Lots of ups, lots of downs, and sometimes you end up screaming and feeling a bit sick.
The end of days
One day our kids will be children no more. They’ll leave school; move out; maybe have kids of their own.
One day the nest will be empty.
At 13, Isaac is in his tenth year of full-time education. In less than five years, he’ll finish school and venture off to university or into the world of work: a fully-fledged adult.
He’s already well down that road. He and Toby came with me to a friend’s 50th birthday/karaoke do over the weekend. There were plenty of other kids there, but mostly aged around 11 and none as old as him. It was noticeable how he naturally gravitated towards the grown-ups in the room. He had more to say to people 30 or more years his senior than with children barely two years younger than him. And that sums up where he is now: on the cusp, more of an adult than a child. The end is in sight, and will arrive sooner than we’d like to admit.
Is ‘fear’ the right word here? Maybe; maybe not. There’s a voice in my head telling me that it won’t really be the end of the road but the start of a new one for all of us. But there’s another voice whispering that, as tricky as the parenting journey has always been – and continues to be – the toughest challenge of all may come when we arrive at our destination.
We’ll see. But increasingly I’m starting to focus less on the road itself and more on the view around me. Once it’s gone, there will be no going back. And I don’t want to miss all the good stuff because I’ve spent the entire parenting journey fretting about the bad things.