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“What was your favorite phase of parenting?”
I saw my kids’ lives flash before my eyes, as my friend Marla casually asked me this seemingly innocent question at a coffee shop last week.
As I thoughtfully chewed on a piece of crepe, I reflected over my past 25 years of parenting.
Babies? Babies! Cute cherubic cheeks – both those on their faces and the adorable ones connected to their chonky thighs. The first smile! The smell of their scalp. Then I remembered how poorly I do on less than 7 hours of sleep. Nope, the baby phase, probably not my favorite.
Toddlers? Ohh, yes! The trying out of new words and sentences, how they freely give hugs and I love you’s and their quickness to forgive! But wait. . .there were also those tantrums in the grocery store and the screams of “NO” so loud and at a timbre so high that dogs three blocks away would start barking. Also. . .still physically exhausting.
Elementary Age, yes. The optimism and vulnerability they lead with in the world. They never doubt that running up to a new kid on the playground and exclaiming “Will you be my friend?” will lead to anything but new connection and joy. But then there are their first heartbreaks – wiping tears as you help them process why Sierra no longer wants to be your best friend anymore. Teaching them where to get help and advocating for them when they encounter bullying on the same playground that once brought them joy and connection. EXHAUSTION. AGAIN. This time because of all the emotional labor it takes to both protect and yet prepare little ones for an adult world.
Teens. The age that so many older parents warned you about. The rebelling. The experimenting. The independence. The iffy decision making that comes with a not yet fully developed prefrontal cortex. But with all of that – their ironic and occasionally inappropriate sense of humor! The beginnings of discovering their passions and gifts and their voice as they stand up for what they believe in. And can we name how amazing it is when they get their driver’s licenses and can drive their younger siblings to school in the morning? But also. . .your kid with a not yet fully developed prefrontal cortex now has a license to operate a two ton machine that can go 90 miles an hour and possibly hurt themselves and others. Enter the stage of exhaustion that comes from crippling anxiety and lying wide awake in bed as you wait for the sound of the garage door to click open by a midnight curfew.
Finally, young adults. The finish line! Empty nests…yay! Right?! Wrong. In Kara Powell and Steven Argue’s book Growing With, they inform that the average young adult now does not leave their parents’ home until about age 30. Be it because they don’t make enough money to live on their own (thank you crippling student loan debt and sky-high housing prices), because they are still trying to figure out if traditional college is their path, or because they are struggling with their mental health, more young adults than ever are choosing to live at home. In fact, in 2021 roughly half of all young adults struggled with their mental health and many do not have access to resources to help them get better. So staying with mom and/or dad it is.
Parenting young adults means you need to constantly pivot and re-adjust your expectations. Having adult aged children live with you means that as a parent you are trying to figure out how to empower them to live independently, while still holding them accountable to do things like helping with chores around the house and communicating with you when they choose to hang out, glory knows where, at 4:05 AM.
You don’t anticipate that parenting young adults is in fact the work of parenting and not just being your kids’ buddy. You don’t predict that parenting young adults will be a crash course in confronting the expectations you have projected onto them, perhaps the same expectations you had for yourself once and couldn’t meet.
Other parents don’t tell you that parenting young adults can be a season of grief instead of freedom. That you as a mom or dad are perhaps the only people on the planet who hold the knowledge of what great potential and gifts and beauty this young person has, as you watch them try and fall and try and fall and sometimes fall and fall and fall and you wonder will they ever try to stand again.
Will there ever be rest?
As I refocused my attention from my evaluation of my parenting back to my dear friend Marla sitting across the table, we locked knowing eyes.
Then we both burst into laughter. We laughed because we realized the absurdity of the question. Every phase of parenting is one-part peeks into heaven and toe dips into hell. We laughed because within us both still lived the sick humor of our once teenaged selves, which when you think of it is a great survival tactic.
We laughed because parenting, just like all parts of this journey called life, is filled with joy and heartbreak and hope and desperation and lessons and loneliness and failure and our own trying and falling and falling and falling and yet somehow, some way, we land somewhere.
When words fail, you can laugh. We are here. We are held. We are not alone even when we feel that no one else has endured exhaustion and brokenness. We learn that grace abounds regardless of whether we feel it or not. And maybe, just maybe if these are lessons I can impart upon the hearts and minds of my kids whether they are 2, 12, or 22, I have done ok as a parent and maybe if I have learned them for me, I have done ok as a child of God.
And friend, in case no one has told you lately. Get some sleep. Take the nap. Make it a priority. Each phase of parenting can be your favorite when you prioritize self-care. Older parents, reach out to the parents with the smaller ones to give them a break for a few hours. It’s amazing how much better your kids and your parenting seem when you get a solid 7 hours of sleep. Keep resting, keep laughing, keep trying and when all else fails, know you will always be given a soft place to land at the end of a fall.