Here’s the thing about parenting. As soon as you finally develop the skills you need to do the job well . . . the job changes. Completely. (I don’t want to sound paranoid but it’s almost as if this system is designed to make you feel COMPLETELY INADEQUATE.)
Consider what it means to parent a four week old. Newborns are essentially little balls of cuteness that just have four requests: feed me, burp me, change me, nap me. Admittedly, they do have a somewhat annoying habit of making these requests in the middle of the night. Or as soon as you have settled down to watch Downton Abbey. But nonetheless. Their needs are fairly straightforward. Assuming you can figure out which of the four requests they are making at any given moment. (And they don’t have colic.) Let’s not obsess over the details. You get my point.
So, here’s the problem. As soon as you begin patting yourself on the back for having become the wold’s greatest baby burper, swaddler, one-handed-diaper-changer and bottle warmer, something happens. You blink a few times and realize that you are now parenting a six month old. Who has had the GALL TO DEVELOP NEUROLOGICALLY. Now this kid isn’t so easy to put to bed. Because, he has decided that there is more to life than napping. AND some bad seed at day care clued him into the fact that Mommy and Daddy DO exist even when out of sight. (Damn object permanence.) So now he wants to be entertained by you. ALL. THE. TIME. I know, I know: you thought the baby was there for YOUR entertainment. (Mother Nature is cruel.) Not to mention that the baby has probably just figured out that her hands are attached to her body and can be used to put all sorts of inappropriate things into her mouth. (To you, Mommy, it’s a cell phone but to me, a teething ring. Tomato, to-mah-to.) And speaking of her mouth, she is now beginning to sprout teeth. (Hmm. That cute little game of ‘let’s pretend to nibble each others fingers’ might not have been very well thought out.)
Let’s assume that, against all odds, you somehow adapt to parenting a six month old. Don’t get too cozy. Because before you know it you are dealing with a toddler. With the capacity for locomotion. And goal-directed movement. At first this is exciting And then you realize that the child’s goals almost never align with yours. As in: “Please don’t push Mommy’s laptop onto the floor. Again. Yes, gravity is still turned on. STOP. TESTING. IT.”
So, you accept that the landscape has changed. And hunker down to baby proof your house. After finally securing the last child proof lock on the cabinets, you turn around and realize that your child is now four. Old enough to think things through. (And disable those locks.) Your child begins to question things. Like why it is that he has to go to bed when you “get to” stay up. And where everything comes from.
My four-and-a-half year old wants to know how everything was made. “How was my shirt made, Mommy?” “How were the bricks on that building made, Mommy?” “How was the firetruck made, Mommy”. This has of course brought to light how VERY, VERY LITTLE I know about how everything was made. And more specifically what everything is made of. Bricks? Okay, I’m going to go with clay . . . maybe? When my back is really to the wall, I just say, “It was made in a factory.” (Don’t judge.) This is what we get for encouraging our children’s intellectual curiosity. (Sucker move.)
Anyway, all I’m saying is that these sorts of shenanigans– the constantly changing landscape and demands– simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other situations. Suppose you went to the pet store and bought a goldfish. And then a few months later, you went over to the tank to feed your goldfish. And realized that peering out of your tank, was a ferret (with some very wet hind feet). No more goldfish. Now Bubbles is a weasel-like thing. You get over the shock of it all. But then a year or so later, you go searching for Stretch only to discover that your ferret has now morphed into a beagle. Would you not have grounds to sue the pet store?
Well, this is parenting.
You never really know when you’re going to hit the next stage. So, you’re always fighting the last war. You’re worried about potty accidents and you don’t even realize that you should be worried about what your kid just learned on the playground this afternoon. About childbirth. Or Santa Claus. (Okay, that probably came from my kid. Sorry.) Things are constantly evolving. Just try to keep up.
But change isn’t all bad, right? I mean there are some changes you actually look forward to. For example: your child finally being potty trained. (Woohoo!) Or your child’s first sleepover (AT SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE.) So, what about those? Well, let me tell you. Don’t hold your breath. Children have an innate ability to sense when you’re a little too eager for a developmental milestone. THEY WILL HOLD OUT FOR AS LONG AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE.
Case in point. We have been waiting for a full three years to see the end of the little emotional outbursts that my son, Jacob, began when he was around a year-and-a-half. Don’t get me wrong. Jacob is a delightful, fun-loving, sociable child. The vast majority of the time. But this joyful side of him is punctuated by . . . how should I describe it? Episodes of complete irrationality. I thought this was supposed to happen during the “terrible twos”. But no, no, he started in with the meltdowns and stubbornness a full six months early. “Well, maybe he’ll work his way out of this phase early,” I remember saying cheerfully to my husband Dan. YEAH. RIGHT.
We finally made our way through most of Jacob’s ‘terrible twos’. Age three was on the horizon. I was pregnant with our second child, Emma. But eagerly awaiting Jacob’s metamorphosis into a more consistently rational, calm, human being. One who would not, for example, suddenly scream at me, “Mommy, you are NOT invited to my birthday party!” (An interesting threat to hurl at the person who, y’know, plans your birthday party.) Suddenly, I started hearing some dirty rumors. “It’s not really the terrible twos” other parents informed me. “It’s really the terrible threes!” PEOPLE: are you trying to crush my spirit? Do you want to drive me over the edge? BECAUSE. WE. HAD. ALMOST. MADE. IT.
They were right. Threes were no picnic.
And then, like a beacon of light we approached it. Jacob’s. Fourth. Birthday. And just as we were closing in on it, I started hearing more of that vile whispering from the dark corners of the places where parents congregate. (Okay, whatever, it was the playground.) “Forget about the twos and threes. Have you gotten to the f***ing fours?”
Are you F***ING KIDDING ME WITH THIS?
Exasperated, I finally asked my sister-in-law– who has older children– about this. “When does it actually get EASIER? I mean when do they become less emotional?” And she told me. Four-and-a-half.
That’s where we’re standing now. Jacob is four-and-a-half. And I have to say, I haven’t seen a huge transformation. Yet. But every now and then, I think I may be getting a glimpse of the future: I ask Jacob to do something and– GET THIS– he actually does it. Without arguing. Or delaying. Or uninviting me to a family event (that I am planning). I’m not sure I know how to parent this . . .