Here’s the Hardest Stage of Parenting (SPOILER ALERT: It’s All of Them)

Parenting Stages CoverToday, I found myself late for everything, as has been the case more often than not in my 19-year parenting career. I was trying to work my full-time job while simultaneously rushing a forgotten lunch to my 16-year old at school, planning how to pick my 13-year old up from theater rehearsal and get her to an outing with a friend on time, all while talking on the phone to tow services, mechanics, and pet-friendly hotels in Jackson, Ohio because my 19-year old had blown a tire on her drive back from Chicago (where she attends school) while travelling with her cat who does not like cars. And if that seems like a run-on sentence, it is, but it was a run-on sentence kind of day.

The thing is, parenting is hard. 

I remember when my first daughter was born and I thought I had entered some sort of Twilight Zone. That might be because most of my waking hours were between twilight and 4am as a I hovered around this tiny creature that now ruled my world with diapers, middle of the night feedings, and cries that I couldn’t seem to identify. Or it could be because the cosmic shock of going from a life without kids to one that centers around kids is immense no matter what. Either way, my world got turned upside down by the entrance of a 6 1/2 pound person who had the power to turn night into day…and did so immediately.

And I have a confession to make. In the early years, I thought it would get easier. But now, after 19 years of parenting, I’ve realized that this it doesn’t get easier…it simply changes. I spent a long time thinking that if I could just get through one stage to the next one, things would fall into place. I kept waiting for some sort of parenting auto pilot to kick in – whether it was because my kids finally got the hang of being kids or I finally got the hang of being a parent.

Turns out, we’re all just winging it.

As my kids have grown, I’ve had the chance to reflect on previous stages while comparing them to whichever stage we find ourselves currently. Early on, I came to the conclusion that each stage is my favorite – and my least favorite at the same time.

Let’s take a look at the progression of the parenting life cycle:

Infancy (0-1)

After nine long months of what essentially comes down to a parasitic relationship, you give birth in a glorious rainbow of emotions – joy, exhilaration, relief, and love all bundled into one tiny, swaddled human being. But that beautiful little internal parasite soon becomes an external parasite that requires constant vigilance, cries when you put them down…or when you pick them up…or when you breathe, demands feeding the moment you finally fall asleep in a heap of parental exhaustion, and expels bodily fluids on your clothes as soon you finally find some clean ones.

The first year of parenting is exhausting in ways you couldn’t imagine. Sleep is a long forgotten luxury and you can’t so much as walk into the grocery store without having a 10 to 20-pound weight strapped to your body, held in a carrier that has long since put your back completely out of alignment, or contained in a stroller that’s approximately the size of your first car.

And then they start walking and talking…which brings us to the next phase.


The Toddler Years (2-4)

Congratulations! Your child is finally sleeping through the night! Of course, they still like to get up at 5am, even on a Saturday, so there’s that. But let’s look on the bright side. You survived infancy and that once entirely dependent baby can now walk….oh yeah, and run. And their favorite time to run is usually when they’ve climbed out of the stroller in the middle of a crowded shopping mall – and while their legs may be short, they are fast.

They can also talk now. Not in a language that anyone but they understand – but still…words. Of course, when you don’t understand those words, a meltdown will ensue, usually involving thrashing, screaming, and instant limpness should you try to pick them up.


You’re making progress, because your toddler can now also “do it themselves.” At least according to them. “Doing it themselves” applies to everything including feeding themselves, drinking out of a cup, buttoning their jacket, buckling their car seat, and making all major life decisions such as whether or not they should go to bed, brush their teeth, or eat candy for dinner. So yeah, there’s that.

These are the years when your child is referred to as a terrible two, a threenager, and a four-year-old. Four-year-olds don’t get a cute nickname because there is nothing cute about this particular stage of toddlerhood. This is a time to survive, with or without your sanity intact. You will spend most of this time trying to remember when last you actually ate a meal while it was still warm or had a clean house.


The Big Kid Years (5-10)

Now that you’ve made it through the toddler years and your child is in school, you finally have a little extra time. If you work outside the home, the childcare bills are a little lighter and you have the peace of mind knowing that they are in a structured learning environment all day. If you work from home (either through an employer or as a stay-at-home parent…it’s work either way), you finally have some free time.

Oh, but wait, you forgot a few things:

  • There are now afterschool activities to include soccer practice, music lessons, dance class, swim lessons, gymnastics, etc. You will also be required to spend a considerable amount of your weekends on these activities. And if you’ve ever sat through a 6-year old’s music recital or double header soccer match, you know that I do mean “considerable.”
  • As for school, there are class parties, snow days, teacher work days, half-days, holidays, and sick days. Your schedule/childcare is now harder than ever to keep track of.
  • A 7pm bedtime has now been traded for dinner by 7pm once you’ve returned from said afterschool activities. Dinner is then followed by a desperate attempt on your part to remember the basics of third grade math during what I like to call “The Homework Abyss.”
  • School projects/concerts/programs will usually only be remembered within days (if you’re lucky) or hours of their due date, resulting in late night runs to WalMart for a red turtleneck (trust me)/poster board/supplies to make a George Washington costume in two hours or less.

There some general things to consider, as well. These years will smell….mainly like sweat and dirty socks. Uniforms of every sort will remain in dirty piles behind your child’s bedroom door until moments before they’re needed. But on the upside, your child will now have developed some sort of rational thought and a wonderful, natural curiosity. Unfortunately, this rational thought will need to be explored and expanded upon by arguing with everything you say and “curiosity” usually just means being curious about how far they can push you before you snap – at which point you will be accused of “always yelling.” But at least they can brush their own teeth (you hope) and go to the bathroom by themselves.


The Tweens (11-13)

Welcome to parenting purgatory. The Tweens are a special and unique time that almost defies description. Bodies are changing, attitudes are developing, and minds are expanding. Your once precious babies are now trapped in a world where they don’t know whether to play with toys or join a gang and live out their lives on the mean streets. This usually results in them displaying the attitude of a gang leader while wearing unicorn pajamas. It’s very confusing.

Sports and after school activities have also ramped up – as has homework.  And while you still have some control over their social calendar and, to a degree, their friend groups, you will be worried about what’s happening every moment you’re not looking directly at them. As they now spend more time in their room or on their phone/electronic devices, you find yourself in a constant state of panic with regards to who they might be talking to, what they might be looking at, and/or what music/shows they have been exposed to.

WARNING: This is just a warm-up for the teen years.


The Teens (14-18)

Many parents see the teen years as their swan song. It is the final stretch of a difficult marathon and there’s tremendous pressure to get it all right. However, this is difficult because the teen years require taking all the things I just said about the tweens and putting them on steroids, or speed, or whatever other drug that you are obsessively worried that your teen might be involved with – even if they are a straight A student who leads student government and never goes out on the weekends. Because, you see, your teen’s actual behavior is almost irrelevant – you’ll still worry. You’ll feel trapped in every single afterschool special you ever watched, convinced “it” could happen to your teen at any moment.

On top of this, add some next level bonuses. I’m talking violent eye rolls, lack of communication followed by massive over communication during emotional crises, boy/girl trouble, friend group implosions, bad attitude explosions, dirty rooms, expensive shoes, a never ending social calendar, sports/rehearsals that now go as late as 9pm on a school night, a complete lack of “anything to wear,” term papers that need to be written the night before, AP tests, SAT prep, college visits/applications/funding, and so on.

But again, let’s find the silver lining. You are physically freer than you’ve ever been. Not only can your teen make their own macaroni and cheese (or at least a bowl of cereal) should the occasion require it, but you can actually go to the grocery store alone. You can even leave them unattended for brief periods of time while you do crazy things like go on a date night with your spouse.

Then there comes the real freedom…they start driving. This means they can actually drive themselves to and from the endless practices and rehearsals. They can run errands for you. They can drive themselves to meet up with friends. They can even drive themselves….off the side of the road, into a tree, down a dark alley because they took a wrong turn because OMG, they’re just a child, they don’t know what they’re doing, why did you ever think it was ok to let them drive in the first place?! See where I’m headed with this?

Oh, and by the way, you’re still exhausted because now you have to stay up until midnight to finish their homework with them, wash the uniform they need tomorrow, calm the emotional post-break up storm, rationalize the behavior of their teenage counterparts when they’ve had a friend fight, and make sure they make curfew…to name a few. But don’t worry, it will all be over soon…right?


Early Adulthood (18 until forever)

We often hear people say things like, “having a child is an 18-year commitment,” as if all you have to do is drop them off at their college dorm or kick them out at 18 before you get to ride off into the sunset. Please see my reference at the beginning of this article to my 19-year old who was stranded on the side of the road in the middle of Ohio.


Even once a child has gone off to college or moved out on their own, you will worry. You will still get calls at all hours for emotional support, for money (mostly for money), and advice on how to work the washing machine in their new apartment building. You will still worry, because you can’t control or see or supervise their lives anymore. In fact, you may worry more than ever because not only will you question their judgement, but you will replay every mistake you ever made as a parent and wonder if that was the difference between them being ok or not.

Most of all, you will find yourself sitting in a puddle of your own tears more than once, longing for any of the stages that came before. You will remember the sweet smell of their downy heads as they lay sleeping on your chest as an infant. You will remember the golden sunshine that exploded with their first smile. You will remember the sticky, chubby hands that grabbed your face and told you were pretty when they were a toddler. You will long for the proud, big-toothed grin that accompanied the handmade Mother’s Day card they gave you when they were a “big kid.” You will miss the wonder you experienced watching them blossom into a bright curious human in their tweens. You will wish for just one more night of peeking into your teen’s room while they slept and breathing a sigh of relief and pride – knowing that they were safe and on their way to great things.

Again, we never get to stop being parents. We will always worry and we will most likely always be exhausted because of it. But if we’re lucky, our kids will never stop needing us. Not to say they won’t gain their independence, but we are inextricably linked as parents and children. And while some stages may seem longer or harder at the time, they will pass. The one thing I can promise is that you will remember less of the bad and more of the good as time goes on and you enter the next phase.

So go ahead, be tired, be frustrated, be emotionally and physically drained – but don’t forget to be present. It will go by more quickly than you know. Soak up every moment, whether it’s happy or sad or tiring. Because these are the moments, believe it or not, that will fill your memory bank and remind you for the rest of your life why being a parent is the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done.