I woke up this morning feeling sick, forgetting about the fruit sign-up for the “Fathers Coffee” at school, and totally blanked on where I put my daughters over due library book. It was before 7:30 am and I was already stressed. I sighed and logged onto my computer to see what other chores, tasks, and jobs I needed to complete that day along with caring for my three children. Then, I cried.
Among all the emails, reminders, and lists, I read this article.
Sometimes it takes a compete stranger to remind me that the “tough days” are the ones I will so miss . . .
What We Wish We Knew Then
Older parents reflect on decisions they made while raising their kids.
By Martha Brockenbrough
Ever wish you had a crystal ball and could use it to see whether your kids are going to turn out OK? Alas, there’s no such thing. So we do our best, hoping we’re making the right choices and all too often beating ourselves up after the tough days.
Absent a crystal ball, we do however have one treasure trove of wisdom: parents of older kids.
Perhaps you, like me, wondered what they wished they’d known when their own kids were in elementary school, or what they’d do differently. I chatted with two dozen of them and learned things that surprised, reassured and inspired me.
They wish they had known not to waste time worrying.
Rather than worry about our kids, we should just spend time with them, parent after parent told me.
“How fast the time passes,” says Paul Erik Van Schaick, who says he worried about everything when his daughter was growing up. If he could do it again, he’d spend more time with her, eat more meals together, and know in advance that puberty would require an exorcism (he’s kidding — sort of).
It’s not always easy to spend focused time with our kids, especially on days when it seems like everyone has endless demands and we can’t possibly get everything done.
“There were times I didn’t think I would make it through the day,” says Susan Milhoan, the mom of two grown boys. “I wish I had stopped worrying about all that and simply enjoyed that time. There were no messes that lasted, no tears that didn’t dry up, and no life-altering crises. Nobody will remember that my reports were perfect or my house was clean, but I ache for those missed moments.”
They wish they had known to put their kids before their careers.
Likewise, there is sometimes an unexpectedly high cost to focusing on our careers too much when our kids are small, even as it seems paramount.
“When my son was born, it dawned on me that I didn’t have very many work-related skills,” says Joan McCoy, whose son is now 40. “I spent most of his younger years getting an education and working — sometimes at numerous jobs. It wasn’t until he started having children of his own that I realized just how much I missed. I was a caring and loving mom, but not very focused or consistent. I just had too much going on and didn’t really comprehend the importance of making time for him without multitasking or interruptions. I thought that if we were together in the same room, him playing or reading and me working at my desk — this is before computers — that I was balancing my work and family life.”
She advises us to give our kids our full attention when we can. “Work and chores will always be there, but those young kids will grow up way too quickly.”
They wish they had known how to support their kids’ learning.
One thing worth worrying about, or at least taking an active role in, is our kids’ education (which you’re doing, or you wouldn’t be visiting Mom’s Homeroom). This is a really good place to be vigilant. For example, parent after parent told me how important it was to check on children’s homework from time to time.
Ellen Pober Rittberg, the mom of three grown kids and author of 35 Things Your Teen Won’t Tell You, So I Will, says, “I didn’t [check on homework], in the possibly erroneous belief that they would learn early that the ball was in their court and they were responsible for their lives at a young age.”
Her kids did become capable, independent students, she says. But you can’t count on this.
They wish they had been more patient with their kids — and themselves.
And the big regret: losing our tempers. After Janet Pfeiffer’s husband of 13 years left her and their four kids, “I was stressed out and frustrated and took my anger out on them a lot,” she says. “It really hurt them and I deeply regret what I did.”
What she’s learned since and discussed in her book The Secret Side of Anger is that she needed to first work on loving herself and having a positive self-image. Her religious faith has been key in her own personal growth, she says, but it’s not necessarily essential.
If you prefer a secular approach, the key is to separate your view of your behavior from your intrinsic value as a person. You might behave in a way you regret, like lashing out in anger, but that doesn’t mean you’re hopelessly flawed, Pfeiffer says. It just means you’re dealing with unmet expectations, which can show up as anger. Lowering your expectations can help reduce anger significantly.
Likewise, when our kids are displaying their worst behavior, we needn’t worry that we’re failing or that they’re in unfixable trouble. These times of unbalance often come just before a developmental breakthrough, says Elizabeth Johnson, a certified learning support coach and mother of two boys, one in college and the other finishing junior high.
“You need to hold space for them, understanding they will navigate through it,” she says. “Support them through it and encourage them.”
They wish they had captured more moments.
We all have zillions of photos of our kids — the beauty of living in a digital photography age. But how many do you have of your kids and yourself together?
“I was always behind the camera,” says Fauzia Burke. “I wish of the millions of pictures, there were more of me with them.” They wouldn’t have to be formal portraits or anything — just shots of them sitting in the museum, reading a map together. “It feels like a snapshot of a moment and relationship in time.”
She’d love to send that sort of thing to college with her kids, who are now 15 and 16.
Likewise, Susan Milhoan, who regretted all her worrying, is glad she kept a journal of the funny things her kids said.
“I only wrote in it when something strange or unique or special happened,” she says. For example, she treasures reading her son’s comment that the soda bottle “kissed” him.
However you capture your memories, these parents are really telling us to remember that this is a journey you and your kids are taking together. In worrying about the future, in getting caught up in less important things, or in having greater expectations for ourselves and our kids than are reasonable, we miss out on those moments that give life meaning and magic.
Here’s to knowing this while our kids are still young.