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Name Your Favorite Parenting Stage

I'm a sucker for newborns. Those scrunched-up faces and long, graceful fingers. That soft, clean scent. The way they fit perfectly along your propped-up thighs. I loved how easy it was to get around with my own infants, wearing them kangaroo-style in a front carrier. Call me crazy, but I found it fun to coax floppy limbs into impossibly narrow sleeves. Even the zombie-buzz of sleeplessness gave me a high. It was all so leisurely, compared with the shock of early toddlerhood. With each of my four children, I was completely unprepared for the bottomless curiosity. I'd never met opposition so strong as a 2-year-old's will of steel. Nor were yanked tablecloths, overturned cereal bowls, and unintelligible tantrums my idea of a good time. I had barely enough vigilance and good humor to hold out till late toddlerhood, when clear sentences and the ability to focus on one thing for, oh, 30 minutes felt like spring breezes after a winter in Canada.

Every mom and dad encounters ups and downs during the different stages of parenthood. It's not that we love our kids more or less at particular ages. Rather, it's the stage itself that strikes a chord  -- or a sour note.

That's why I take it with a grain of salt when parents tell me, "Oh, I love all of it." Probe a little deeper and you hear a mother of five admitting, "I'm not really a baby person." Or the devoted dad who surprises you by saying, "I love my son, but I wasn't into playing with him until he was old enough to kick a ball around."

These reactions are all perfectly normal, and perfectly human. So when you're not clicking with a particular stage, hang in there  -- it'll change soon.

The lap-baby stage

The upside:
Cuddle-licious. After the long months of pregnancy, you're officially a parent. Time nearly stands still. What mom hasn't stared for long minutes at perfect tiny lips or starfish hands?

"They're so sweet and innocent and helpless," says Holly Black of Severn, Maryland, who's cherishing every moment with her fourth child, Matthew. "Now that he's here, I see how fast the others have grown.

He'll fall asleep in my arms, and I won't want to put him down. It brings tears to my eyes knowing how quickly it'll go." Then there are the practical sides. Featherlight newborns are oh-so portable. They sleep half the day (if only half the night), so you still get out for carefully timed movies, shopping, or meals.

The downside:
Did somebody say "sleep"? Being on the alert 24/7 can be a rough transition, especially with a first child. Nervousness or ambivalence are common. After all, parenting doesn't always come naturally, especially to people who haven't spent much time around babies.

Another factor: A baby can cause tension and worry. "Travis was an adorable baby, but he had colic," says Kristine Breese of Los Angeles, whose son is now 9. "He was inconsolable, and there was a lot more crying than sleeping for the first three months. I didn't really start getting to know him until he was six months old."

Even perfectly healthy newborns require lots of thankless labor. On top of diapers and umbilical care, their floppy necks need support and they look so fragile (even though they're not). And all this while your breasts are leaking, your body's healing from childbirth, and your brain's struggling to operate on catnaps.

"Babyhood was my least favorite time," says Diana Eastwood, mom of Chloe, 11, and Peter, 7, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "Infants are so much work, and you can't have a conversation with them. And all those diapers!"

The floor-baby stage

The upside:
Three- to 9-month-olds are the very image of babyhood: cherubic, grinning, alert, and curious. They can get around, but can't go too far. They babble your name. They clap and wave bye-bye. They continue to nap a lot. They (usually) sleep through the night.

And they're easy to please. "I love how they eat up everything you show them," says Jessica Smith of Hamilton, Ohio. "And they're so excited when they figure something out, like how pushing the green button on a toy makes the farmer pop up." Smith, whose daughters are 5, 4, and 15 months old, admits that there's also an ego-inflating side to pre-talking tots. "My older daughters can be argumentative, but whatever you want to do or say is okay by a baby."

The downside:
The manual labor goes on and is more complicated-now your child is heavier and requires tedious feedings of solids (producing more colorful and aromatic stains and poops). Even a trip to the supermarket seems to involve as much planning and stuff as a weekend away.

Run too many errands or try to skip a nap or meal, and you risk meeting the Demon of Crankiness. And because your baby can't yet say what's wrong, every kind of displeasure, from "I'm hungry" to "I'm hot" to "I'm bored," comes out as wailing. Babies who aren't yet sleeping through the night can exhaust moms who are run ragged by day but never get a chance to completely recharge.

Some babies are as ready to move forward as their parents. "Gabrielle was the type who didn't like to be still. She was frustrated seeing her older sister, who was three, running around to get whatever she wanted," says Darlene Van Der Zyde of Budd Lake, New Jersey. "I also had to carry her everywhere, holding my other daughter's hand, schlepping a purse, diaper bag, and whatever else was necessary." Once Gabrielle learned to walk, her entire disposition changed  -- and so did her mom's.

Toddlerhood

The upside:
No more blob. Many parents who'd been vaguely nervous or a wee bit bored by trying to interact with an inarticulate, uncoordinated lumpling are often delighted by the amazing creature who takes her first steps. Goodbye, tedium; hello, something-new-every-ten-seconds.

"We never had the 'terrible twos,' and I hated it when people would nod in this sympathetic way when I told them Travis was two," says Breese. "He was a joy. He talked and developed social skills early." A few weeks after his second birthday, which fell in May, Travis had a quick reply for those who asked how old he was: "Three in May." "He wasn't confused, he was planning ahead," she says.

Indeed, your child's personality begins to unfurl like a time-lapse video of a flower. Toddlers are curious about everything, and eager to share it all. All you need to keep up is energy, patience  -- and a good sense of humor.

The downside:
No more downtime. Did I mention the need for energy, patience, and a sense of humor? Too big for bouncy seats and swings but no longer content in playpens, cribs, or strollers, toddlers demand a new level of alertness. Yet, developmentally, they're more like babies than big kids.

"The hardest thing is when she's trying to communicate with me but I can't understand her," says LaTina Haynes, of Knoxville, Tennessee, of her daughter Rheagan, 18 months. "She knows what she wants but when I can't figure it out right away, she gets so aggravated. I'll say, 'Do you want this? Or this?' and she just says 'No!' whether she wants it or not."

Parents have to begin saying "No," too, sowing the seeds of discipline in order to keep a busy toddler safe. Often, it seems like your every interaction is reduced to saying "Don't do this" or "Stop that." And what fun is that? Then there's potty training...

The preschool years

The upside:
Charm galore. For Cherie Spino, mom of four, in Toledo, it's the blooming language skills of 3- to 4-year-olds. "They can tell you about their day and you can have real conversations," she says. Her youngest, Claire, is now 5. "She says the funniest things. We were looking at a Disney book and she named the characters:

'Bambi, Cinderella, Sleeping Bag'? She meant Sleeping Beauty, of course!"

In the preschool years, the hard labor is behind you. Most moms are rewarded with a charming, semicivilized little person, who's able to get dressed on his own, feed himself, and say please and thank you. On top of such remarkable self-sufficiency, preschoolers have tremendous reserves of curiosity, imagination, and enthusiasm. And they still look like their cute baby selves.

The downside:
Quirks aplenty. Some preschoolers, especially boys, are still being potty trained at 3. A kid who's very shy or very energetic can try a parent's patience. Exasperated by our son's endless stream of "why, why" questions at this age, my husband would sometimes lower his voice and intone very seriously, "No one knows."

Patti Anderson, who lives in Cincinnati, counts the preschool years as a simultaneous high point, low point of parenthood  -- "depending on the hour," she says. Her 4-year-old daughter Louisa's nonstop chattering, dancing, and cheerleader imitations often wear her out. On the other hand, Louisa "has no attitude and is still fairly obedient," two very welcome traits that seemed to disappear, Anderson says, when Louisa's big brother, Joe, reached the first grade.

The elementary years

The upside:
Coming into their own. "They've always been their own person, but now they can express their individuality better," says Diana Eastwood of her kids Chloe, who's in fifth grade, and Peter, who's in second. A child's tastes and interests become distinct as he spends more time out in the world and has more opportunities to make choices.The older your child gets, the more help he can be to you, too.

"My older daughter can read to her little sister, and it's the sweetest thing to see," says Jean Starks, mom of Emily, 5, and Allison, 3, in San Francisco. Another bonus: A friend of mine called these the "build-a-buddy years," where you can share your own favorite pursuits with your child.

The downside:
Who are these people? That's what my husband and I sometimes ask each other as our older kids, 14, 12, and 9, flash their strong personalities.

I also despair that I'll never get used to the role of Master Planner, keeping track of playdates, homework, activities, and birthday parties. Who could have predicted that a few tiny babies could grow up to generate so much paperwork?

Every year seems to bring new, ever tougher challenges: giving our kids freedom while worrying about safety, encouraging them to make friends while wanting to protect them from mean or unsuitable peers.

That said, moms who've been farther down the road say, "Just wait." Just wait for preadolescent angst. Just wait for getting a driver's license and applying to college. Just wait till it's time to let them go.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of Momfidence! (Crown).

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