One of the great joys of parenthood, for me, was being there as my babies began to understand the world around them. Things that were once just objects to gnaw on suddenly became objects of curiosity. People became interesting, dogs became the source of great excitement, flowers became beautiful and books became pages that sparked little imaginations.
Every day brought new wonders and realizations, and with them, richer vocabularies, deeper conversations, more inspired creativity. I remember once I was in the market with both of my kids – my son was one and my daughter was three – and an older man looked at us and said, enjoy this, because these are the best days of your life. I remember thinking that he was right.
Then came the elementary school years, and the opposite occurred. Instead of trying to expose my children to everything around them, my instinct was to protect, protect, protect. Once they could read, so much of the scary, adult world was available to them, and my parenting went on the defensive.
I restricted what television shows and movies they could watch. I didn’t keep fashion magazines or celebrity gossip rags in the house. I put filters on the internet. We didn’t discuss news of war or natural disasters or terrorism or drugs or sex. We never used the word fat. I wanted my kids to remain in the warm, safe cocoon of childhood for as long as possible, and I sheltered them to the best of my abilities. Instagram, Snapchat, reality television and Pretty Little Liars were the enemy. Disney, Pixar, and Captain Underpants were my saviors.
But now that my daughter is moving on to seventh grade, I’ve loosened up at bit. She spends her summers at sleep-away camp, and there isn’t a curse word she hasn’t heard or said herself. At school this past year, she learned about drugs and sex and staying safe. I’ve allowed her to get an Instagram account, I let her watch Psych and NCIS and Dance Moms, she’s read The Hunger Games and Divergent and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. We watch The Daily Show together and I explain to her why everything Jon Stewart says is so funny.
I have to tell you, I thought that this would be a terrifying time – a pre-teen girl in the age of the Internet, oh my! – but funnily, it reminds me a little bit of those early days, when she would point at something and ask me, what’s that? It’s like the world is being opened up to her again, and now that she’s mature enough to handle what’s being revealed to her, she’s soaking
it all in.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not quite as joyful as it was the first time – instead of chubby cheeks and four front teeth she’s got pimples and braces with bright purple rubber-bands in them – but still, it’s pretty fun. I’m amazed every day by the things she knows and understands, and by how insightful she is. I’m stunned when she can grasp the intricacies of social issues, and when she laughs at things in all the right places.
Plus, I’m starting to be able to share with her the things that I loved when I was her age. I’ve been taking her through a John Hughes retrospective recently – The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller – and she can relate to them in the same way that I once did. It’s not quite like the first time I took her to Disneyland, when she was three, but it’s pretty damn close.
Sometimes, I think back to that old man in the grocery store, who looked at me and my children. I can probably imagine what he saw – a young mom with two beautiful little kids picking out cookies in the bakery section – but he probably didn’t notice the bags under my eyes from exhaustion, the stress in my voice from trying to manage a toddler and an infant, the under-stimulation I was feeling from not being around grownups. Still, those were some of the best days of my life. But they weren’t the only best days. I’m learning that with each phase of parenthood, that are new joys that make it all worth it.