Today is our daughter’s birthday. In our culture birthdays are important events that we – mostly – like to celebrate. Wishing someone a “Happy Birthday” is a required greeting when you have that knowledge, and giving someone a gift on their birthday is also required depending on how closely you are related to them – especially for parents. But as anyone who has a birthday around the holiday season can attest, it can be a mixed blessing. Was the excitement and celebration of their birthday as great as it would have been if it were in the middle of say, August? And the catch is, we’ll never know.
As parents we started a tradition early in our daughter’s life of doing what we could to make sure she knew her birthday was important. The day after Christmas we completely remove all the Christmas ornaments from inside the house and on the tree. Then we re-decorate the tree in all-white lights and all-pink handmade ornaments we made when she was little, and christen it the “Birthday Tree,” which then remains up through the rest of the season.
This year was an odd year in that it was the first time our family was not together on Christmas Day. Our son is on the football team at the University at Buffalo and they played in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama on Christmas Day. So he did not arrive home until the day after Christmas, which delayed our birthday-celebration transition by a day because we instead celebrated Christmas as a family on the 26th.
The opportunity for families to gather together is one of the joyous parts of the holiday season for many people. However, during this COVID-challenged year when family get-togethers around the country instead incite fear because of the possibility of spreading the virus, our not being together on Christmas Day was unfortunately much more the norm this year. Which is why we are grateful that we are able to be together at all.
For my wife and me, being together as a family this holiday season also hits home about the special feelings we have for being parents. As our daughter and son have grown up we think back on the many times we’ve looked at one another and talked about what we lovingly refer to as “an experiment” in parenting. It’s a concept many parents understand when asked the standard question of, “How are your kids doing?” and you have the desire to respond, “Ask me in 20 years.”
So it was that our daughter recently remarked to us about her life experiences out on her own that, “Adulting is a never-ending to-do list.” A comment we found humorous and true.
The remark also sparked me to consider what I’ve learned about “adulting.” On the daily walks my wife and I take, we’ve contemplated the key insights we’ve gotten from our years of child-rearing. We’ve talked about what important lessons we’ve received and how they’ve changed and molded our lives. And I decided on 10 I thought are worth sharing.
Now, understanding that we are still very much in our parenting phase and not near its completion, and that discussing parenting methods is for most people akin to discussing politics or religion in the pantheon of forbidden conversation topics, I nonetheless am attempting here to do so in a way that I hope is minimally offensive. With that in mind, here is my list of the top 10 things I’ve learned as a parent.
1. Children are a gift. It took five ectopic pregnancies, a miscarriage and the scientific marvel of in-vitro fertilization to allow us to be the parents of our two beautiful children. That we were able to have children at all makes this item easily the first thing I’ve learned.
2. Adjust your life to theirs. There are many times as a parent where you will be faced with choices. Parenting means constantly adjusting and re-adjusting to the ever-changing circumstances of life. Will you adjust your needs to meet your children’s needs, or vice-versa? Making the choice that causes us to adjust our needs to theirs has never let us down.
3. Co-sleeping. Sleep is a natural bodily function, yet many of us don’t seem to do it very well. There is plenty of medical research on sleeping and, although it’s not completely understood how it happens, it’s generally agreed that getting good sleep is necessary for optimal health throughout life. Ask anyone how they slept last night and you’re almost guaranteed to get a response that acknowledges this need. Yet for some reason from the moment a baby is born we can’t wait to get them to sleep in their own bed in their own space – even to the point where “crying themselves to sleep” is accepted parental advice. Letting our kids sleep with or near us until they decided they were ready to sleep by themselves worked out well.
4. Breastfeeding. The benefits for parents – easily accessible food day-and-night, less smelly diapers, a bonding only nature can provide – are well known. But if you appreciate the “do it for public health” mantra many people espouse these days, know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “committed to increasing breastfeeding rates throughout the United States and to promoting and supporting optimal breastfeeding practices toward the ultimate goal of improving the public’s health.” In other words, if you are physically able to do it, it’s recommended.
5. Don’t let schooling interfere with their education. With apologies to Mark Twain, there are many ways to educate your children in the 21st century. Homeschooling, charter schools, private schools, cyber-schools, unschooling or regular old public schools. The alternatives to the traditional K-12 experience abound, and our current virus restrictions are shining a greater light on many of them. Between our daughter and son their combined educational experience was about 70% homeschooling, 25% public schooling and 5% charter schooling. Each of them found their way through their education in a process that made sense to them. Resist the temptation as parents to “know” the right way to educate your kids and let them decide how they want to be educated. Which leads to…
6. Your continuing education credits. If you give your children the opportunity to teach you they will do so in ways you can’t imagine. Living with them and watching them as they meet new obstacles on a daily basis can shed some interesting light on how you think and act not only as a parent, but as a family member, friend, relative, co-worker, customer, etc. They also know you better than you know yourself and challenge you to be your best you.
7. Trust them. As adults and parents we saddle our children with many age-based rules and regulations. You must sit in a car seat until you’re 8-years-old. You can’t drive until you’re 16. You can’t vote until you’re 18. You can’t drink alcohol until you’re 21. Is it any wonder they learn that we don’t trust them? Take every opportunity you have to show your kids that you trust them and that their feelings, desires, wants, needs and likes are all valid and important. Their ability to to listen to their “inner-voice,” and confidence in doing so, is a skill that will help them immensely as they travel through life.
8. Trust yourself. To paraphrase Deepak Chopra, ask your heart for guidance on every choice you make. If your heart feels comfortable then plunge ahead with abandon. If your heart feels uncomfortable, pause, see the consequences of your action and correct your choice. The point is, your brain and all the information and thoughts contained within it are invaluable to getting through life. But in parenting your heart knows what’s best.
9. Enjoy and be proud. From the moment they are born until the moment you die (and here’s to wishing the natural order of things follows for you and yours), your children will do things that amaze and astound you. Enjoy these moments. Cherish them. Live for them. Have fun. Don’t be a Grinch with your emotions – let your heart grow three sizes and the true meaning of parenting will shine through.
10. Let go. Having children is the equivalent of a part of your own body living outside of you. They are of you and through you. It’s the closest we’ll come, as far as we know, to an out-of-body experience. But the purpose of many spiritual journeys is the enlightenment that, “it’s not about you.” And the many ways that parenting is not about you are infinite. The goal of parenting is for them to be happy, healthy, loving and caring human beings. And creating their own life. Which requires letting go.
As I said, this is my list of the things I’ve learned from this great trip called parenting. If you are able to do it and want to do it, I wish you the opportunity to get to do it because the journey is so worth the price.
Have a wonderful 2021!