Raising kids gets much easier physically as they get older...but much harder mentally.
When my kids were tiny, there were times when all I wanted was enough space to take a shower, enough peace to eat a meal without interruption, and enough energy to make it through the day. But I took solace from friends with older kids (and from the soothing words of books and magazines), all of whom assured me I'd eventually make it out alive.
Imagine my chagrin when I found out that for every reason it's easier to parent a sixth-grader than an infant, there's an equal and opposite reason it's more difficult. Staggering around on three hours of sleep was hard, but at least I didn't have to think too much. Talking Zander down off a homework ledge (when I barely remember algebra), trying to figure out a tactful way to cope with an overbearing teacher, offering advice that isn't hopelessly lame when confronted with some social conundrum like not being invited to the cool kid's birthday party -- I'll take caring for a baby any day. And I'm not alone.
Coming clean. "My biggest mental challenge with my five-year-old is that I need to be more creative with everything," says Nikki Brooks, a mom of two who lives in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "When Kiersten was a baby and didn't want to do something, we were able to get her to do it anyway—she didn't have the ability to negotiate! Now she stands her ground and has a few of her own beliefs, and it's a challenge to find a way to guide her in the right direction without smothering her independence." And now that Kiersten is in school—riding the bus and spending most of her day with people her mom doesn't know—Brooks has found that she's had to give up some control. "But when I see how happy she is getting off the bus, I know it's worth it," she says.
Taking care of kids actually isn't that hard. But it can make everything else in life nearly impossible.
I've never had a real job. Yes, I've written articles and taught a few classes since Zander was born, but I've never had what one could call a career. So I can only speak for myself when I say the following: While I wouldn't have wanted to spend the past 11 years doing anything besides raising my two sons, it hasn't exactly felt as if I were running the World Bank. I mean, how demanding is it to read Frog and Toad for the umpteenth time, or to push somebody over and over on the swing? In my experience, caring for my kids has turned out to be something I can do with plenty of time left to goof around in a low-grade way—in other words, it's a slacker paradise. As Dave Barry once quipped, taking care of children is laughably easy, provided you don't try to do anything else. (That's why I give kudos to moms who work—at home or outside of it.)
Dave Barry is, as usual, exactly on target. "When you're doing the laundry, your kid will always find some little game that fascinates him," says Julia Steury, Minneapolis mom to Patrick, 5, and 8-month-old twins Caroline and Edward. However, the minute you're seduced by his self-sufficiency and sneak off, he'll burst into flames of burning, immediate need.
Coming clean. "I used to get frustrated," Steury says. "Then I realized I absolutely had to compartmentalize my time." So if your kid is napping, or mesmerized by a DVD, seize the moment aggressively, says Steury, who blogs in her free time. Whenever you can, don't waste valuable solo time on chores or errands. In my house, naps and the post-bedtime hours are chore-free zones: I write, read, or just catch up on e-mails.
Once I embrace my inner Dave Barry, and stop expecting to accomplish things when my kids are lurking, needily, in the background, I'm much happier. You can also split the difference, says Steury. "When Patrick is doing a craft at the kitchen table, for instance, and I know he'll need me every two seconds, I unload the dishwasher. Patrick doesn't need my full attention, but neither does the dishwasher, so things get done and everyone's happy."