This week, my younger son turns thirteen. This will officially make me the mother of THREE teenagers. (No wonder the gray hairs are starting to multiply.)
Parenting teens is pretty freakin’ stressful. When they were little, I controlled the decisions in their lives, what they would eat for breakfast, what television shows they could watch, who their friends were, what time they went to bed. How bad can you screw that up? Even if they ate crap for breakfast, I could make up for it at lunch. Now they make decisions that can have long-lasting and drastic consequences, and I feel like I am running out of time to teach them the important lessons in life.
Plus, there’s the unending worry about Internet safety, and substance abuse, and their futures, and safe sex, and texting while driving, and whether or not they remembered to put clean underwear on because if they didn’t and they get in an accident everyone at the hospital will think I’m a horrible mother who has raised a tribe of Neanderthals.
So all of you mothers of older kids out there, the ones who felt sorry for me when I was a brand new mom; when I was a sleep-deprived incoherent zombie who smelled like sweat and sour milk because I hadn’t showered in three days because the baby would scream whenever I put him down; when I felt like little more than an animated milk bottle for my demanding, hungry, squalling child; when I defined a productive day as one in which I’d actually accomplished brushing my teeth, you told me, “Don’t worry. It gets easier.”
I clung to that hope like there was a light at the end of the tunnel that I just couldn’t see yet. But I hoped. Later, when the baby that seemed glued to my breast became glued to my leg so that I couldn’t take two steps without him tugging on me, I clung to those words of promise. Through years of smelly diapers and toppled Christmas trees and grocery store tantrums, I waited. Through years of being pooped on, peed on, slobbered on, and vomited on, I waited. Through the clingy years of night terrors and scribbled marker wall art and late night Legos on bare feet. Still you assured me, “Don’t worry. It gets easier.”
By that point, I’d staggered through motherhood long enough to know it wasn’t going to get easier anytime soon. But, still, I hoped. I was at least getting some sleep, which was a good thing, because I needed my energy to answer the incessant questions and to put the goldfish back in the aquarium because the four-year-old had left him on the desk again so he could “get some air,” and to unclog the toilet that was overflowing because it had two socks, seven legos, a baby rattle, and a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich flushed down it. I had sung “The Wheels on the Bus” no less than 13 times in two hours and rescued the dog from a spilled bag of chocolate chips and dropped egg shells because two short people were “helping” me bake cookies, all while balancing a very wiggly baby on my hip. “Don’t worry. It gets easier,” you said.
And now… it’s slamming doors and sarcastic eye rolls and pushing at the boundaries. It’s blatant questioning of my decisions and arguments about fairness and worrying about reputations. It’s dropping everything because your teenager needs to talk right now. It’s helping with fractions and enforcing curfew and explaining prejudice and warning about date rape. It’s friend drama and the world’s not fair and why did this stranger send my teenage daughter half-naked pictures?
And don’t you dare tell me it gets easier. Don’t you dare.
I call bullshit.
I’ve traded kissing away the boo-boos for nursing broken hearts. I’ve traded sleepless nights rocking a restless baby for sleepless nights worrying about the decisions they might make when I’m not around… decisions that could rock their world and mine… decisions that can’t be undone and we could all have to live with forever. I’ve traded “The Wheels on the Bus” for the oft-repeated “Be Responsible.” I’ve traded incessant questions about how things work and “Why is the sky blue?” for questions about how people work and “How could she be so mean?”
But they still demand food… constantly. That definitely hasn’t changed.
And, I no longer smell like piss. So, there’s that.
Sure things have gotten easier in ways. I can leave the house now without small humans attached to me. I sleep for stretches longer than three hours. And I haven’t been vomited on in at least a few months.
But in some ways, it’s so very much harder. (Plus they aren’t as cute and easy to forgive anymore.)
But what I heard when you said, “Don’t worry. It gets easier,” is that life would get back to normal — that I would be able to not only sleep and shower without interruption, but that I could have a thought independent of how it might affect my children. That I could make decisions based on what I wanted, not on what was best for the family. That I could pursue selfish whims and not care about the future or worry about the world reported on the evening news. I wanted the normal pre-kid me that wasn’t stressed out by the responsibility of raising human beings.
But once you have children, you have to find a new normal. And sometimes normal is wearing ratty sweatpants because nothing is clean or fits quite right, and learning to dodge Legos and keep chocolate hidden out of reach on top of the fridge. Sometimes it’s learning to function without coffee or a good night’s sleep, but loving your life anyway. Sometimes it’s bandaging skinned knees and answering awkward questions. And through it all, the new normal is loving them so much it hurts.
And when you’re the mother of three teenagers, it’s setting boundaries and watching them stumble and reassuring them. It’s having the hard conversations and ignoring the sarcastic eye rolls and stepping back when they make mistakes instead of rushing in to save the day (which is one of the hardest things in the world to do). The new normal is trusting your kids to make good decisions, and loving them even when they don’t.
Which definitely isn’t easy. But it is normal.
Moms of small children out there, don’t listen when they say it gets easier. They lie. They mean well, but they lie. It doesn’t get any easier, but it changes. Those little human beings aren’t the same as they were a year ago, a month ago, or even a week ago. But the good news is neither are you. You become better. You learn. You adapt. You figure things out.
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