A New Stage of Parenthood

Alex windowjpgI’ve been firmly entrenched in the “small child” phase of parenting for so long, I kind of forgot there was another stage coming.

Well, really in the grand scheme of life, it isn’t that long. I’ve been married almost fifteen. With Christian for almost nineteen. Playing flute for thirty. Writing for thirty-five, and going to Mass every Sunday for almost forty. But there’s something about the intensity of parenting small children–especially when one of them has a condition that extends every stage–that makes it seem to last longer than aspects of life that have much more staying power.

There’s never a dull moment with a house full of small kids: you’re tripping over something that wasn’t there thirty seconds ago, having to clean up the accident. One child thinks he needs help going to the toilet and another screams at you because she doesn’t want help, even though you know she actually does. It’s milk spilling and “get back in the kitchen with that food!” It’s the fascination with turning switches on and off, on and off, pushing the doorbell twenty times in a row. It’s giggles and tackle hugs and raspberries on baby fat. It’s blowing out the pilot light on the gas fireplace and closing the valve and stuffing it with plastic bags for seven years and counting. It’s three separate children waking up screaming when a hard rain pounds the front windows. It’s boo boo kisses and bath time battles, toilet training and diapers and speech therapy and cajoling every bite of food into the mouth.

For the past two years, I’ve had two kids in elementary school and two at home. This June, I have also had two in summer school and two at home, but the dynamics are different. My house with Children #1 and 4 in it is a very different place from my house with #3 and 4. Alex is like a ghost. He’s quiet. He goes to his room and reads for hours. He plays Wii. He plays piano. Once in a while we get some noise: he loves to chase Michael around the house roaring. But it’s so very, very different from having two small children in the house. The intensity just isn’t there.

There’s a bit of ego in all of us, an insurmountable self-centeredness that makes us think all experiences are brand new just because they’ve never happened to us before. I’m well aware that every parent who has ever walked the face of the Earth has experienced the double-take when they see the child they cuddled as a baby morph into gangly arms and embarrassed giggles over the opposite sex. That every parent has experienced the sense of “is this really happening?” when they face their child to break open the topic of puberty.

I love this picture, because the reflection in the window is Baby Alex staring back at his 9-year-old counterpart.
I love this picture, because the reflection in the window is Baby Alex staring back at his 9-year-old counterpart.

But it doesn’t keep me from feeling like the whole world is turning on its head. I’m a parent of small children. That’s my identity. It’s been my identity for such a long, intense period of my life, I’m not even sure how to wrap my head around the thought of being anything else.

Thus, this is a mind-stretching time for me. A time to get used to a vision of myself as a parent of kids whose identity is increasingly independent of me, whose need for me is less about demands of self-care and physical comfort, and more about socio-spiritual-emotional formation.

It’s wonderful and it’s terrifying, exciting and overwhelming. And it changes so many things.