Everyone I know who is a parent is exhausted. All of us – without exception – got hit by the parenting bus with the arrival of our first child, and have been waiting for life to get back to “normal” ever since. But which is the worst stage of parenting? I remember upsetting a friend once by telling her how difficult 7 year olds were, according to my then experience. She was devastated, and even a little cross with me, because she was battling the hardest stage of her own parenting journey, the terrible twos, and couldn’t believe that it wasn’t going to get at least 963% better when she reached the point I was at. Well, I’ve been a mum for 15 years, and I reckon I’ve cracked it. Not parenting; oh nohoho – that conundrum continues to challenge me daily. But the answer to the question we’ve all fantasised about since that very first, sleepless night – When does parenting get easier?
When does parenting get easier?
The pros and cons of a newborn baby
When you bring home your first baby, you feel like crap, but you’re on such a big high that you’re prepared to push that aside. You sit on your heavenly cloud (and your inflatable plastic haemorrhoid cushion) gazing into your newborn’s eyes with adoration, and ALL your heart strings play a symphony. How did you make this creature? How did he get to be so perfect, with his cradle cap, his strawberry birthmarks, and his lazy eye – just utterly perfect. You don’t even mind being up every hour – anything to spend more skin on skin time with your baby. Until day three, when sleep deprivation kicks in, along with anxiety over the colour of his poo, how long he’s feeding, his eczema/colic/intense screaming, OMG it can only mean that he hates you and you’re never going to bond (delete as appropriate, or sign up to all). But it’s still the most incredible feeling of love, and you will never be in that bubble again.
No. It’s pretty safe to say that struggling with a newborn is standard, and that this definitely isn’t the easiest stage of parenting. Old ladies, and those who’ve forgotten tell you to cherish them while they’re little (and you silently imagine punching them in the throat – the old ladies, not your baby). They say it will get easier, and it will. But it gets harder too..
Book recommendation for newborn parenting: None. Get a Netflix subscription and make the most of your sofa. As long as your child is loved and fed, it will all work out in the end.
Terrible two’s and funny toddlers
This is the most magnificent stage of parenting that there is. Maybe. There’s a reason your toddler gets just so damn cute around the age of 18, months; it’s so that you don’t give them away to the postman. Toddler behaviour is the most hideous thing to control; it’s tear-your-hair-out levels of stress and frustration, and you go to bed every night wishing you had done better, spoken more gently, just kept your cool a bit longer. You lose your evenings to endless bedtime shenanigans, and break into a sweat of humiliation every time you’re out in public. And this is when you start to find yourself necking a bottle of wine every evening. (Don’t worry, you will be able to kick the wine habit in another 10 years – see the teenage section for how).
BUT! Having a toddler of your own is magical too. You get to go and see the Snowman at Christmas and no one rolls their eyes. In fact, your child is so eyes-wide-open in wonder that you won’t see the show yourself; as far as you’re concerned your two-year-old is the main attraction. Ditto the hilarious things toddlers say that keep you attentive to their needs all day long. Like I say, they’re the cutest things ever, and you can’t imagine a time when you will be able to let them leave home.
Verdict: toddlers are a double-edged sword. Magical, adorable, hilarious, and you made them! Also, maddening, ridiculous, and soul-destroying. And it’s your fault.
Book recommendation for terrible two’s: 123 Magic (get the children’s version too). This worked so well for us that I still use it today with my teenagers.
The Primary goal – ages 5-10
When your kids go to school, you’ve made it, right? No more potty training, bum-wiping, dressing, cooking seven different meals, or – for the most part – arguing over really stupid stuff like why they can’t wear the superman outfit they peed themselves in yesterday for the eleventh day in a row. They’re smart, frequently self-sufficient, and much less likely to run out into the road without warning than they used to be. They may not always abide by the rules, but they usually understand why they’re there, and often write you beautiful apology notes when they’ve had time to reflect. Yet they’re still funny, and you’re still their whole world. They adore you, and they don’t mind who knows it.
However, hormones usually begin to kick in during this phase. I remember some particularly difficult temper tantrums my daughter had around the age of 7. They were worse than toddler tantrums, because they lasted longer, were less easily forgotten by both parties, and they culminated in one of us saying something we didn’t mean. This was the age my child began to ‘hate’ me, and to say so with frequency. The self-recrimination before I went to sleep was intense and relentless, a permanent feature of my bedtime wind-down routine. I went in to see her head teacher to talk about a particularly difficult friendship issue she’d been having, and she sighed: “Year 2 girls. Every year has it’s problems, but in year 2 it’s the girls. Their hormones start to kick in, and it’s every man for himself.”
So yeah. Children of primary school age are definitely the easiest ones to parent. And the hardest.
Book recommendation for parenting 5-10 year-olds: How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk. If you take one nugget of advice from a book, it’s worth reading. I can only remember one of mine from this book, but it’s been invaluable, in life as well as in parenting.
I read this quote the other day. It wasn’t planned, but in 2017, when my children were 10 and 12, I started craving a dog. By the time I had a teenager, he was with us, and he never fails to get excited when I walk into the room. The same cannot be said for the kids, or my husband. Nora is a wise woman.
Teenagers do still love you; it’s just harder to see, and easier to surrender to self-doubt. It’s also terrifying how fast the years go round at this stage, and I frequently find myself desperate to stop time, before it’s too late and they’ve gone. So, are the teenage years the most difficult stage of parenting? Let’s see, shall we? Here’s a list of things you spend your time doing when you’re the parent of a teenager:
- Saying sorry when you’re not; agreeing that you’re in the wrong, when you’re not. Choosing your battles wisely. Holding your tongue; letting it go. Faced with a teenage attitude that always defaults to “It’s your fault and you know nothing,” I’ve learned that not rising to the bait is generally the best approach. Which can make you feel like shit, frankly. But the alternative is permanently frosty atmosphere where no one wins, and everyone hates you, even when they’re asleep. Now, there’s an element of my parent’s generation that says this is the wrong approach; that children need to learn boundaries, and even teenagers have to toe the line. And that’s true, as evidenced by the occasions when I get it right and finally snap, ominously enough for my children to stop in their tracks for a short time. And by the times I get it wrong and finally snap sufficiently to scare the crap out of everyone in the house, including myself. Parenting a teenager is the biggest leap of faith I’ve ever taken. Not picking them up on every rudeness, bad attitude, or swear word, and trusting that this is a phase they will grow out of has taken more strength than it ever took for me to wrestle a toddler to the ground in the biscuit aisle of Sainsbury’s.
- Waiting in car parks after dark. You know that bottle of wine you nursed every evening? You can’t any more, because you’re driving. In fact, you begin to lose your evenings as soon as you acquiesce that 7pm is indeed a later bedtime than all their friends, and push it back to 7.30. From there it’s a slippery slope to never being able to watch Game of Thrones, or Silent Witness, until your kids are adults, and capable of watching it with you. Couple time is basically history, unless you go out and leave them home alone. In fact that’s one advantage of having a teenager.
- Waiting to go to sleep. I’m still exhausted at the end of day. I want to be asleep before 10pm. But my daughter doesn’t. 13 years on from my first toddler bedtime battle, I’m finally having to accept that she will be the last one to bed.
- Brushing up your negotiation skills. Man, teenagers are clever. They’ve had years of practice at winding you round their little fingers, and now they have the debating skills (I use that word loosely) and energy to beat you at your own game. Step up parents of teens, this is the PhD of parenting skills, and you’re going to need all of your stamina to survive the teenage years.
- Accepting that you have no control. Your child is now a young adult, and “because I said so” no longer carries weight. You may set a curfew, and threaten confiscation of a smartphone, but in reality the only way your child will adhere to your rules in any positive way is if they’re mutually agreed. You’re not fully in charge any more, and what they tell you they will do, and what they actually do when they’re not at home are frequently very different things.
- On that note: Panicking about alcohol, sex, drugs, relationships, dark streets, knives, grades, careers, money, the future, etc. The big things.
- Not sleeping. I’m told things will get worse. My children are going to stay out past midnight, and come home when they’re ready, like normal young adults. I’m going lie awake in bed until they do.
- Handing out cash. Teens are way more expensive than toddlers, and we’ve never been more broke.
So this is totally the worst stage of parenting. However, it’s also the absolute best! Remember the hormonal 7 year-old I mentioned? Back then I was terrified of the future. “If this is what she’s like now, how on earth will I cope when she’s a teenager?” I despaired to myself. I doubled the stress of 7 to create my imaginary 14, and it was unbearable. Thankfully, I can tell you that almost none of what I imagined has come true. On the contrary; teenagers are amazingly good company, and most of the ones I’ve met have an empathy and passion for others that I can’t see in my own generation. They fill me with hope for our future. They’re self-motivated, self-aware, and generally ambitious.
Also, they make their dad buy much better birthday presents than he used to, and they can make their own food. #Win.
Book recommendation for parenting teenagers: If you find a good one, let me know – I haven’t nailed it yet!
Also, if you do find yourself stuck at home with a teenager, try this list of activities for teens to keep them busy and happy.