I hate it when people tell me that it goes by fast. “Enjoy it while you can! They grow up so quick! You’ll blink and they’ll be out of the house.”
I’m not saying they’re not right, or that I won’t be saying the same things to some frazzled, 30-year-old mom in a couple decades, but it sure doesn’t feel helpful right now. When my six-year-old is throwing a tantrum at first grade drop off, or my five-year-old is up three times in the middle of the night with bad dreams, time feels impossibly slow and surviving the moment seems like a more attainable goal than enjoying it.
Some days the best I can do is focus on enjoying it later.
When my boys were younger, I had a particularly hard time with how strong-willed my firstborn seemed to be, shockingly uninterested in that whole people-pleasing, rule-following thing oldest children are supposed to be into. My friend Michele told me a story that I have come back to time and time again when enjoy it while you can has been an impossible admonition.
When her son—also a strong-willed, free-thinking spitfire of a kid—was three or four years old, they were at a child’s birthday party at one of those baby gym places; the kind with the big parachute and the foam balance beams and whatnot. As the teenage baby gym employee gathered all the kids into a circle, Michelle’s son ignored him, happily continuing to play on the other side of the room. “Okay kids, let’s all join together!” the employee said again, with only Michelle’s son remaining unmoved. Finally, he called him out by name, instructing him one last time to join the group.
“I don’t WANNA join!” Michele’s son shouted back defiantly. Michele was mortified. Here she was, sitting with a group of moms whose children were all happy to follow instructions, to go with the flow, to join the circle time shenanigans. Her kid was the one kid making things difficult, standing out for all the wrong reasons. She knew this feeling well. I know this feeling well, too.
Her friend sitting next to her grabbed her by the arm. “Hey,” she said, forcing Michele to look at her. “When your kid is in high school and the cool kids invite him to go smoke pot behind the gym, he’s going to be the kid that has the guts to say, ‘I don’t want to join.’”
I don’t know what happened after that, if he joined the parachute circle or if Michele had to discipline him in public or leave early or some other stressful fate that moms of strong-willed kids will find familiar. But I’ve never forgotten the gift she gave me in that story. She helped me realize the things that are most difficult about my kids now just might be the things that serve them best as they grow up.
The way my oldest is so fearless—always climbing higher than is safe, going faster than is reasonable, and attempting things he sees kids twice his age struggle to pull off. To parent that fearlessness now is terrifying. And exhausting. And stressful.
The way my youngest is such a perfectionist—easily angered when his first attempt is unsuccessful. Whether writing his letters or singing a song or riding a bike, if it doesn’t look exactly how he wants it to look on the very first try, he’s out. Slams the pencil on the table, throws the bike to the ground, explodes into a fit of rage and storms off. It’s heartbreaking. And counterproductive. And maddening.
I'm tempted to try to squash these difficult behaviors. I could tell my oldest he’s not allowed to climb higher than my head, or refuse to take him to the skate park until he’s older, or make him wear full body pads. I could punish my youngest when he slams his pencil down or force him to try again on my terms instead of his own. And some days I fall to that temptation. Some days I reduce the job of parenting to making it about what I can withstand, what I have the energy to deal with. It would certainly make my job easier as their mom if the oldest was more careful and the youngest was more gracious.
But these things that can feel like the worst things about them right now just might be the best things about them later.
Maybe my oldest will be an entrepreneur one day. Maybe people will tell him he’s too inexperienced or his idea is too crazy or his goal is too big. And maybe he’ll climb to the top anyways, just as uninterested in pleasing the naysayers or following the rules as he’s always been.
Maybe my youngest will be an inventor one day, or a surgeon. Maybe his classmates will be happy to do the bare minimum just to get a passing grade, or maybe someone will tell him to give up. And maybe he’ll just keep holding himself to the highest standard he can imagine, refusing to accept anything less than a perfect execution of whatever it is he decides to devote himself to.
My role is to help them play the long game. To parent the fearlessness in a way that keeps him safe, but brave. To parent the perfectionism in a way that encourages grace, but remains uncompromising. I take my risk-taker skiing and I give up on telling him to slow down, reminding myself that the best I can do is hope he’ll listen to his uh-oh feeling. I color pictures with my perfectionist, giving him fresh page after fresh page in his pursuit to get it right, hoping he sees how all his practice is paying off.
My job isn’t simply to enjoy it while I can, despite what the nice grandmothers at the grocery store tell me. The work of motherhood is about mothering, after all. Raising them up, and raising them right. Seeing them for who they are, not just what would be most enjoyable for me to parent. And beyond just seeing who they are, celebrating it. Even the things that drive me crazy right now—and maybe especially those things.
In the hardship there is goodness. In the worst things hide the best things. All they need is time.
Written by Anna Quinlan.