On a recent walk through my neighborhood, I passed a dad carrying a bundled-up infant against his chest. He was walking briskly with an extra bounce in his step – a style my Dad Senses instantly recognized as an appeal to the universe to please, please let this child take the nap they so desperately need. I immediately thought about how central my kids’ sleep schedules were to my life at the time and how now, with kids of thirteen and seventeen, I don’t think about their sleep at all.
As a parent, you try to give your kids what they need while they need it until they don’t need it anymore. When they’re born, they need so much of so few tangible things: sleep, changing, to be held. Just when you feel like you are getting the hang of it, they learn something new or need something different. It’s a constant adaptation.
The milestones happen so quickly. You blink and suddenly they are performing miracles previously unthinkable: they hold their head up on their own, they smile at you. A blink and they’re crawling, another and they’re walking or saying their first words. A few more blinks and your kids are rolling their eyes at you in Target for daring to suggest that they might someday need some more socks.
The phases keep coming. They start and stop and restart. They overlap. Sometimes it feels like things are changing too fast for you to keep up, other times it feels like nothing is ever going to change until it suddenly does: a milestone that is clear and binary. A before and after.
For years, I structured a part of my life around being prepared to deal with bowel movements that weren’t my own. I carried a bag solely dedicated to this purpose. I maintained a constant mental log of when the last dirty diaper was and what that might mean for the immediate future. I noted when my kid ate blueberries so I could steel myself for the armageddon to come. Then one summer, we took a vacation to the beach and my youngest just decided she was done with diapers. Just like that, a thing that occupied so much of my time, energy, and attention was done forever.
Other milestones can be so gradual that you don’t even notice when they’ve passed. At first, my kids needed to be carried everywhere, but eventually they got bigger and better at walking. I needed to carry them less and less. Now, I don’t need to carry them anywhere (it would look silly and I’d probably hurt myself if I tried). But somewhere along the way, there had to be a last time either of my children raised their little arms asking me to pick them up and carry them, but it passed so insignificantly I have no memory of when it was or how I responded. I’d like to think I embraced them warmly, lifted them up, and pulled them in close, but it’s also possible I was tired and a little grumpy at having to pick up and carry a heavy kid who had insisted they’d be able to walk the whole way.
When you’re in it, it’s hard to notice that you’re in it. It’s easy to tell yourself to be mindful and to fully experience each moment as you pass through it, but life gets in the way. You get tired, you’re human. You don’t always notice what’s changed until you’re afforded the luxury of a reflective pause. I’m glad I don’t have to carry my kids around anymore, but I can also mourn for the end of the phase where they needed me in that way.
Some of the milestones you work directly toward with a clear goal in mind. Nowadays my wife Kat and I can just run an errand or go out to dinner and not stress about finding someone to watch our kids. But we didn’t just up and leave one day; we took deliberate, gradual steps when we thought our kids were ready for them. There’s a clear progression from leaving your kid alone in the house while you do work in the yard, to leaving them home alone while you go for a short walk around the neighborhood, to very brief outings, to trusting your kids to feed themselves dinner and put themselves to bed without burning down the house in your absence.
Right now, I can say I never explicitly volunteered for the chauffeur phase of parenting, but here I am. My kids want to go places, do things, and see people. And while I’ve been training my kids to use the bus since they were little, experiencing the full freedom of our city all but requires riding in a vehicle. The kids need rides. “Can you drop me off at my friend’s house?” “Can you drive me to Target?” Sometimes it feels like I’m never not driving to or from a school event or waiting in a parking lot on a Saturday night for my theatre kid to strike the set from the school play. But this too shall end. My high schooler is well on his way to being able to drive himself where he needs to go. My son will be a legal adult a year from now. He will be wrapping up high school; he will be preparing for whatever phase comes next. Not too long after, his sister will be there, too.
Sooner than I expect, I’ll be in the phase of parenting where I hope these awesome adults I helped raise will want to hang out with me from time to time and occasionally let me know what cool things they are up to. I know there’s still a long way between here and there, but I hope I can notice and appreciate each leg of our journey together.