Monday, September 13, 2010

The Magic Middle

One of the things that’s scary about choosing to have four children is the fact that all four of them will eventually become teenagers. Sure, they’ll spend years being the cute little toddlers, and inquisitive little preschoolers. But if the statistics were correct, eventually our house was destined to become invaded by four creatures who, on a good day, we call teens.

I’m knee deep in them at the moment. My baby boy will be 10 soon but all three of his older siblings are ages that include the word teen at the end. So far we’ve survived, but it’s been a bumpy road at times. And it’s not the big stuff that’s tripped me up. I’m honest enough to say up front ‘knock on wood’, because so far we’ve had no teen pregnancies, no arrests and no life altering injuries brought on by bad choices and questionable peer influence. It’s the little stuff that gets to me.

I was having trouble putting my finger on it until I talked to my sister in Dallas this week. She has three teen daughters (and so gets extra points, for all of the estrogen that forms a cloud over her house at certain times of the month). She was puzzled too, by what exactly it is we miss about the younger years.

It’s certainly not the potty training. The only pee pee in my carpets came from misbehaving animals, not bladder shy toddlers. When I talk to my neighbors who have babies, I am reminded that I am way too old to be losing sleep every night, like I did when we had a crib in the house. I definitely don’t miss seeing the clock at 3 a.m. on a regular basis.

It’s no secret that the youngest years are labor intensive. It’s a lot of physical work to haul a little person (or people) around, constantly changing clothes and diapers, wiping faces and bums a thousand times a day. Then when it’s finally time to rest for the night, there are no guarantees. Even if you lay your head on the pillow at ten, there’s a good chance it will not be there all night. Sleep deprivation was one of the hardest parts of parenting the babies.

My sister and I talked forever and we slowly came around to pinpointing our nostalgia. We decided that it’s the middle years we miss. Sure, we ooh and ahh and get all sappy when we see pictures of our children at their youngest, but when it comes down to missing the day to day lifestyle, it’s the elementary school years that really did seem the sweetest. I have one still thick in those years and he is by far the easiest one in my household.

He’s old enough to shower all by himself and pack his own backpack. He can be easily entertained by anything on Nick Jr, but is also old enough to have fairly deep discussions with me. He can carry his own laundry and load his own bowl in the dishwasher. And, the best part of all, he’s young enough to appreciate and give hugs as my reward, when I do any of the above things for him. He’s way past the exhausting phase of raising babies, and not yet venturing into the no man’s land of teen hood.

As much as the under five year olds are physically hard, the teens are mentally challenging. Setting (and enforcing) curfews. Teaching them to drive (and in the process, introducing a new skill called ‘ignoring a vibrating cell phone in your back pocket’). Preaching to them (in a meaningful way, of course) the joys of being responsible with their bodies and their long term life plans.

As much as I was freaked out by being trusted with that first newborn baby almost twenty years ago, I was doubly freaked out when I realized her dad and I were responsible for making sure she went out into the world and not only kept herself alive, but did her part to make it a better place.

And the part that no one talks about, and the part that I’ve been missing the most lately, is the relationships. When the bulk of my kids were elementary school ages, they were generally nicer to each other. We went on a lot of family adventures and although everyone was not happy all the time, in general we had a lot of fun. The big ones looked out for the little ones. It was second nature to hook their own seat belt, then turn to make sure little brother was buckled in too. Every new car trip screamed of potential fun and, if they were really lucky, maybe a piece of candy from the quick stop or a sip of soda in a diner booth.

Now that they are mostly teens, it’s much more about their individuality. They are not (generally) downright mean to each other, but on a day to day basis, it’s more about their own needs and less about the needs of the family as a whole. Time in the car turns into torture if there are no headphones to pop into ears. A trip to the museum is something to be endured, not embraced.

A few weekends ago we had a family day with all four of our kids. This, in itself, is a rarity, since one is graduated and one is a senior and never seems to be home anymore. We pulled out of our driveway mid day and spent the afternoon flitting around town, doing fun stuff to celebrate their dad’s birthday.

For some reason the planets aligned just right and I got a brief glimpse back to a long gone vibe we used to possess when we were just ‘us’, bouncing along in our minivan.

The kids all got along. There was teasing, but all good natured and light hearted. No one complained, smiles were commonplace. We laughed at silly things and discussed some more serious things. And we were a unit again. Our tight little unit that I never recognized fully until kids started splintering off from it when too many birthdays turned them into teens.

It was when I described this scene to my sister that she replied, “Ahh, yes…those magic moments seem farther and farther apart these days. I wish I’d recognized them back when my kids were in grade school and they happened a lot.” I’m totally with her on that thought.

The funny thing is, I know it’s healthy for them to be breaking away from me, from their family. Well, my head knows it. My heart’s still not quite on board.

When my oldest turned 13 I bought six books from Amazon, all on the topic of surviving the teen years. I felt so unprepared, even more so than when I’d been pregnant and facing new motherhood, and just felt a need to be surrounded by some guidance. After skimming through the first few I realized they were all pretty much alike (not unlike the baby books I’d read a decade before).

Be patient. Remember they need to find out who they are. Be patient. Keep communication open. Be patient. Set consistent, safe boundaries. Oh yeah, and be patient.

The introduction to one book helped me as much as any chapter I read. It was written by a woman who led seminars for parents, on how to cope with teens. She described an exercise she did in her seminars. In the front of the meeting room she’d place a big white marker board. Working as a team, the room full of parents were to make a list of all the things a perfect teen would do. Of course before the time was up, the board was filled with things like “keep her room clean”, “do homework every night, on time”, “never talk back”, “never break curfew”, and “dress conservatively”.

Then the leader asked the parents to think of a kid who inhabited all these traits. Imagine if their own child had all of these traits. Then be honest with themselves if they’d be okay with that. Because when it comes down to reality, it would be pretty creepy to have a teen who acted exactly as we wanted them to act. It would make us wonder, in turn, what was wrong with them.

That exercise helped me a lot. My teens are going to act out and do things I’m not crazy about. Their rooms are rarely clean, and almost never to my standards. But neither was mine when I was their age. Sometimes they need to feel their oats, as my dad would say. Back talking is not tolerated in our household but I don’t panic anymore when it rears its ugly head. I know it’s a part of their breaking away from me, and from us, to become their own person.

But I have to be honest and say I sometimes miss those days when they used to be in the magic middle - after their earliest years and before their moving on years. That sweet spot that was really busy, full of spelling tests and science fair projects. Back when it seemed like they’d always be under my roof and never prefer to have dinner anywhere else but around our long dining room table.

For three of mine, those years are gone. Soon they’ll be finding their way into adulthood. It’s a tough time for them and a tough time for their parents.

But I know we’ll all survive. Just like my sleep deprived brain from a dozen years ago finally got caught up on basic rest, life will circle back around before I know it. In the meantime, all I can do is keep loving them, stay patient, and remember that parenting is an ever changing journey.


Cathy said...

Wow - I really like this glimpse into the future. I have one teen and another almost there. My youngest is six. I never thought about it til now, but you are your sister are right, those middle years are special. It's hard when you are in the thick of teenage "individuality" to keep that perspective, but this post helps.

Carrie Link said...

Yes, the teen years are a challenge, even when you're raising good teens, like I gratefully am. Thank you for articulating something I've been feeling!

About Me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
About Me said...

Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. My kids are 3 and 6, and I was just whining to myself that "the magic years are over." You give me hope that good times are still ahead!


Terrycastle said...

OK you are living in my world now. I understand exactly what you mean! I've missed you. I've had a wild summer. Kids growing up, attitudes and trying to get my book published.

But I'll tell you, it is the middle years--they are blissful. And I remember thinking...this is perfect.

But we shall see what is in store for us next.

Miss you,

Jenn Casey said...

Found your blog via GeekMom, and I just loved this post! I have three kids, ages 8, 5, and 2, so we are only just beginning the magic middle. I think I'll start paying attention. :o)

Sarah @ Momalom said...

Wow. Wow wow wow. This is fantastic. You have packed so very much into this post and I sitting here reeling with your wisdom and impressions of our different stages of parenting. I'm stuck in the early years. Well, I have one solidly in that elementary school stage--and it's a beautiful thing. My body is tired. My soul grows weary so quickly. And when I envision my three boys as teenagers I grow gloomy. I mean, will it EVER just be fun? Will the work EVER seem to be worth it?

Anyway. I'm rambling. Your words made me think and think and think and wow, FOUR kids...One question, is it any crazier than three?