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Spring on the farm: green grass, tulips, redbud and lilac
blossoms, baby lambs, and calves. After the ninth coldest winter on record, new
life on the farm and the prospects of a new growing season make us practically
Other sure signs of spring are more subtle: individual solo
and ensemble music contests, field trips, high school graduation parties,
college commencements, and wedding invitations.
The arrival of spring is closely intertwined with the
milestones of parenthood. This year, our family celebrates the college
graduation of younger daughter Alexa, and the wedding of her sister, Allison.
Moving one home from college for the last time and planning a wedding for the
other leaves little time for reflection. Too often, in the midst of all the
hustle and bustle of our family lives, we fail to savor these moments.
Being a parent, after all, isn’t for the faint of heart. In
her new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer
Senior writes, “But the truth is, there’s little even the most organized people
can do to prepare themselves for having children. Becoming a parent is one of
the most sudden and dramatic changes in adult life.”
She poses the question of why some very credible research
indicates that parents aren’t any happier than nonparents and, in certain
cases, are less happy. Parenting, she points out, is a high-cost/high-reward
I’m not surprised that studies target the early years of
parenthood as the least happy. The reasons are etched in my memory. I vividly
recall babies crying into the wee hours of morning, worry over fevers and ear
infections, child care gaps, and my inability to accomplish any task requiring
more than four minutes.
Then there’s the tug-of-war with toddlers over naps, videos,
and clothes. A 2009 study found that mothers and toddlers averaged a conflict
every two and a half minutes!
Thankfully, the preschool years arrive. These days are
bookended by the breakfast hustle and bedtime stories.
Outdoor play is where it’s at. We fenced our yard and added
a swing set and sandbox. One day my husband came home with a small shed. The
previous owner had displayed his model railroad in it.
It was a perfect playhouse. We equipped it with a large, old
chalkboard, a couple of old school desks, and a kitchen set. The girls spent
many happy hours playing there.
The next milestone is elementary school. Soon, they are busy
with piano lessons, dance, and T-ball. Birthdays are a big deal with school
treats, sleepover parties with friends, and family events.
Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert perfectly
describes this period of controlled chaos. “Everyone is moving at the same
speed toward the future. But your children are moving at that same speed with
their eyes closed. So you’re the ones who’ve got to steer,” he says.
The years pass quickly. Bath time and story time are
overtaken by homework and chores. Summers fill with 4-H exhibits, swim lessons,
vacation Bible school, and softball games. Family vacations revolve around
museums, water and theme parks, zoos, historic monuments, and national parks.
Dinosaur playtime eventually becomes extinct, superseded by
the desire to own a pony. The girls and I managed to find time to repaint the
playhouse, giving the interior walls an extreme makeover: pink and purple.
Fast-forward to the junior high years. We live out of our
van, with the girls sometimes changing clothes in it. Piano recitals. Musical
rehearsals. Wet towels on the floor.
Soon we are parenting teenagers – monitoring computer use,
doing wardrobe checks before school, waking them for early morning driver’s ed,
scheduling prom dress shopping, and ACTs. They leave home before dawn for
morning jazz band and arrive home in the dark from practices, games, or piano
lessons. One thing remains constant: the wet towels on the floor.
Psychologist Joanne Davila writes, “During childhood, it’s
about trying to help develop who your kid’s going to be. During adolescence,
it’s about responding to who your kid wants to be.” You’re no longer the
beloved parents. You’ve become the pit crew.
In the blink of an eye, high school graduation is followed
by college. We moved our daughters home each summer, denying the passage of
time. As a toddler, it always seemed that the world was Alexa’s oyster; we hope
the future holds as much promise for her and her college class of 2014.
All joy or no fun? It’s not that simple, Senior writes in
her book. New research shows that parents with children age 15 and younger
experience more highs, as well as more lows, than nonparents. They also report
greater feelings of meaning and reward. We relive life through our kids; we’re there
for the fun of their achievements and the heartache of their struggles.
The backyard playhouse was abandoned a decade ago, except
for the rabbits. One day last fall, when I glanced out the window, I saw it had
been dragged outside of the yard. Within a few days, I could see it oddly
tilting on the western horizon.
In the weeks that passed, as I returned home, my eyes were
drawn to that empty structure. A few days elapsed and I’d forget to look. When
I did, I realized that I felt a strange sense of comfort at the sight of it.
Some day later this year, the girls’ playhouse, like their
childhood, will disappear from the distant horizon. In its place will be many
joyful, fun-filled memories and a tinge of sadness. Some days, I’m pretty sure,
I may close my eyes and pretend it’s still there.