(Image credit: Flickr)
I feel an incredible kinship with moms of little ones. I remember the baby and toddler days in vivid detail, co-wrote a book meant to minister to mothers of infants, and just yesterday at Grace for Moms offered words of encouragement to those who find themselves trudging through summers with small children.
A few years ago, when I was right there in that phase of life myself, I had a few friends in what has been called the “sweet spot” of parenting - with children in the elementary school years. And you know what? I was jealous. I loved my babies with everything in me. Really and truly wouldn’t trade any day with them. But wow, was I tired. Missy at It’s Almost Naptime wrote a fantastic piece earlier this week about just how physically exhausting it is to extend the constant care required by kids below preschool age. Those are brutal years. And when my friends with older kids would talk about their lives as if they were difficult, there was a big part of me that wanted to snort and huff and snarl back, “Oh really? PTA commitments? That must be awful for you. I haven’t slept in five nights and I got pooped on this morning, so cry me a freaking river!” I wondered why they weren’t picking up the slack and volunteering for more stuff at church or offering to watch my kids more, because can’t they see I’m running on fumes? I judged and envied and whined a lot inside.
Now, though, I feel like I owe those women an apology. Because yes, little ones are incredibly hard (and awesome, and a joy) to parent. And Missy is right that the physical demands of those days know no equal in the lives of most parents. But these days are hard (and awesome and a joy) as well.
The “sweet spot” is a real thing. I have never loved parenting more than I do these days with my nine-year-old and six-year-old. They are fun and sweet and independent and legitimately hilarious. I can send them to clean their rooms, get ready for bed, or make a sandwich and they can do it. This would have sounded like my fondest dream come true about six years ago. We have real conversations and they’re discovering their interests and gifts and it’s just so fun that I find myself breathing frequent, simple “thank you” prayers throughout the day for the experience of being in this spot with them right now.
But also? I have quite possibly never had to tackle stress management as much as I’ve had to do lately. Life is just flat-out busy. Insanely busy. Now, not only are we dealing with family schedules and Mark’s and my meetings and such, but we have four individual schedules to manage. There are music lessons and 4-H, scouting troops and sports, dentist appointments and birthday parties. Our calendar, filled with such great things, gives me actual tension headaches. I find it impossible to follow-through with things that I’d started with the best intentions. (Case in point: I polled my friends at church about who might like to take morning walks together this summer, and then the summer took over my life and I dropped the ball completely. Ugh.)
Where I used to crave evenings out of the house when my kids were tiny, I now find myself choosing to skip out on evening group gatherings for the often absolute necessity of having normal family time. Surprisingly, I’m desperate for date nights far more these days than I was in the early parenting years, because we’re so slammed with commitments, and because it’s impossible for Mark and I to have BIG conversations in front of the kids without their comprehension anymore. Weekend getaways used to feel simply luxurious…now they feel crucial. While I used to tell myself that I’d be able to volunteer for so many more things when my kids were just a little older, I now realize that I have less capacity than ever to take on more responsibility. In our years of parenting so far, we have never had to have a conversation like the ones we’re having lately, where we are literally strategizing priorities, weighing benefit of each activity against the stresses they bring, and trying to learn to be ruthless in protecting family time and couple time. Add to this new responsibility for Mark at work and the possibility of him heading back to school for his MBA, and I’ve had many moments of panic over how in the world?
Beyond scheduling craziness, there is the different-yet-equally-huge set of responsibilities that come with shepherding children through this age of constant questions and new realizations. I used to answer a bajillion questions each day with responses that only required a fraction of my brain. (“Yes, that is a kitty.” “Yes, the kitty says meow.” “No, we can’t touch the kitty because it’s way over in that yard.” “Yes, the kitty is gray.” “No, we can’t feed the kitty.” [repeat incessantly]) Now, I’m fielding things like, “How do we know Heaven is real?”, “What if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross?” “How do we know we’re hearing God?” “When will I have to wear a bra?” YIKES, you guys. I can’t redirect this stuff with a silly little made-up song like before. These require my full brain, heart, patience, prayer, and time. Instead of dropping what I’m doing to pull a toddler off the bookshelf, I’m dropping what I’m doing to spend awhile snuggled on the couch answer questions about fears and death and Satan and body image and other things that catch me off-guard in the middle of cleaning the bathroom.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had lately with others in this life phase where we shake our heads, perplexed at how the summer has slipped through our fingers, overwhelmed by our Google Calendars, and sobered by the weight of guiding big kids toward the looming teen years. And for many of my friends, financial stresses add even more complexity to life. Because while diapers aren’t eating away at budgets anymore, these kids are certainly eating a lot more food. And they will sometimes go through three shoe sizes in a single season. And each activity they sign up for costs very real money.
Don’t misunderstand – my life is awesome. Fun and full and easier in loads of ways than the years spent wrapped up in feedings and nap schedules and no sleep. But harder in many ways too. I get it now, friends of years ago. And I’m so sorry I assumed unfairly. Because I know now that while I envied your full nights of sleep and lack of diaper bags and what I envisioned as tons of time for yourself, I lacked the full picture. Yes, you had many things that I craved in that moment, but you were in survival mode as well. It was just a different kind.
I needed Ann Voskamp’s words this week on how as mothers, we can’t have it all. Sometimes we need to get out of the house, and sometimes we need to stay in. Sometimes we can take on more ministry responsibilities, and sometimes we have to focus on the ministry of marriage and home and children. Let’s just always have grace for each other, okay? Let’s not get wrapped up in envy, certain that another mother has it so much better. Let’s not become enslaved in comparison, where we berate ourselves for not being able to do everything like so-and-so seems to do. Let’s be generous to each other and real with ourselves, asking for and offering help when needed, while understanding when someone else just can’t give more right now. Let’s offer encouragement and perspective to each other on those rough days with a teething baby or a fearful third-grader.
Moms of little ones, I will always have a special place in my prayers for you. You are doing hard work in the deep trenches, and you are amazing. Pray for me too, as my trenches are shaped and placed differently, but real. And they are located on the same side of the battle as yours are. And in a few years, when you are here, you will still have my prayers. Because I know that the sweet spot is crazy-wonderful and crazy-difficult. And I will still need your prayers as well…because I will have teenagers.