My “baby” boy turned twenty years old this week. TWENTY. That’s a “Whoa” birthday for a parent.
And as with every milestone birthday my kids have celebrated over the years, I go and rustle through my untidy and overstuffed office closet, carefully moving like an explorer in the jungle, to reach the piles of our family photo albums. I grab a towering stack and take to the floor for a little journey back in time.
I flip through countless, shiny pages that document The Days of My Kids’ Lives, preserved old-school style, long before digital scrapbooking and Instagram posts. Inevitably, my cheeks also turn shiny with a few tears, seeing snapshots of such small children I long to put back onto my lap and cuddle with for just a few, fleeting minutes.
And I think about the enduring cliché of childhood: The days are long but the years are short.
It’s the default response of so many of us parents who have moved through the Little Kid years and want to warn younger parents just how very fast it all goes by, and to savor each and every day. Even when it feels like your child has been whining for ten hours straight. Or they’ve stuck a washcloth down the toilet and smelly water has been seeping down the stairs while you’re starting your third laundry load of the morning. Or they’ve poked you awake at five AM on a Saturday to tell you they’re ready for chocolate chip pancakes.
When you’re in the trenches of all that, far too many days do seem to drag on for a grueling eternity.
But when looking in the rearview mirror, we recollect those years flashing by in a dizzying and technicolor blur. Parents of adolescents tend to (thankfully!) forget the day-to-day weariness of car seat buckling and unbuckling, potty training, mealtime coaxing, and everlasting scraped knees.
And in what seems like a flash, you suddenly have a teenager on your hands. Because let’s be honest, with the advent of the “tween” concept, the minute your kid turns eleven or twelve, most of the telltale signs of teen-hood have already emerged. The eye-rolls, the “Whatevers”, the lack of handholding in public, and the “My friends are way more interesting than you” attitude.
Rather abruptly, those days that seemed to last forever have vanished like the sticky sippy cups and beloved board books of long ago.
Because the days of parenting teens go something like this:
A fleeting glimpse of a semi-comatose body grabbing a granola bar and an overflowing backpack with a grumbling farewell as they leave the house at zero-dark-thirty to catch a bus or drive to school.
Their afternoons are jam-packed with practices and club meetings and community service projects and part-time jobs. You glimpse them in the passenger seat of your car as you shuttle them places, observing just the side of their face as they look down, texting their friends.
Or they arrive back home in the evening darkness, swiftly stuffing some food into a hungry mouth, then head straight into their room to start hours of homework, with earbuds in place that transport them into a detached reality.
Days pass in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes, depending on family schedules, you simply hear them, and don’t actually see them during a given 24-hour period. And the weekend days are rarely better with the games, performances, school projects, and catching up on much-needed sleep (and must-see Netflix).
It’s the night hours of the teen years that seem to slowly tick by.
Parental worries grow exponentially faster as our kids grow taller, and they gain increasingly more independence.
We may worry about the driver of their carpool coming home from practice, or the older sibling who’s taking the group to and from the Homecoming dance. Or what they might be getting into at a new friend’s house.
And we ask all the requisite questions. And we get the sometimes suspiciously-worded answers.
Will there be a parent at that house tonight? “Yeah. I’m pretty sure.”
Will kids be drinking at this party? “No. I doubt it.”
Will you please text me when you get there? “Sure. I’ll try to remember.”
Oh, and do those worries ratchet up even higher when they get their own driver’s licenses.
Parents lay awake at night, or sit slumped in front of a TV, not really absorbing what’s on the screen, but instead envisioning inexperienced drivers with buzzing cell phones in their pockets, and friends turning up the car stereo volume much too high.
We visualize them getting lost (even with Google maps) or getting hit or making a stupid decision that could permanently affect someone’s life.
And in a weirdly post-modern way, parents even worry if their teen isn’t out at a gathering or speeding down the freeway.
When they are camped out in their room all night, we may start to ponder thoughts like these:
Do they have enough friends?
Are they spending too much time playing video games? Or on social media?
Are they feeling depressed or experiencing social anxiety?
Do they feel too much pressure to get good grades that they aren’t having enough fun?
We may experience an emotional flashback, wishing once again they were peacefully tucked into a toddler-sized bed, with a rotating nightlight that turned their darkened room into a starry galaxy or a princessy-pink fairytale. Back to when our days were long, but their nights were safe, as they clutched a stuffed bear or bunny beneath a frayed yet cherished blanket.
Nonetheless, just as those early, exhausting years were a phase that we all powered through, the teens years will soon be lumped together as one more phase, the last one of their official childhood.
So, at the risk of voicing a couple more parenting clichés, try your best to cherish each and every day, including all those lengthy, teen-year nights. They too, shall pass.
Because once your children have left your home, you may actually find yourself wishing you were still anxiously awaiting to hear them come home and whisper a “Goodnight” into your darkened bedroom.
The teen years, despite all the angst and worry, end up being short as well.