Phases of parenting

Often when you stop and look at your life, instead of hurtling through it at 110 mph, you realise that something has changed. It was changing all the time, of course, but changing oh-so-slowly that you never noticed a genuine transition sneaking up on you.

I had a revelation the other day when my youngest son, who is 4 next month, announced to me that the phone was ringing, brought it to me, took it back it’s usual place when I’d taken the call, and skipped away with an air of satisfaction in a job well done. I called after him in thanks, and he responded “That’s ok, Mummy” and carried on finding something else to do.

He’s a proper boy now, independent of me in so many ways, which is a good thing as he will be joining his brother at school in September. I have worked part-time (Monday-Wednesday) since the boys were 6 months’ old, and will be increasing my hours (adding 10-2 on Thursdays and Fridays) from August. The end of an era is upon me, and I barely saw it coming.

Of course, it is wonderful that he is growing up into such a gorgeous little man. I am tempted to congratulate myself on the excellent mothering that has obviously led to this result, but any sense of pride is tempered by the realisation that things could so easily have been different. I am overwhelmingly grateful to have two bright, confident, healthy little boys who are developing as they should; the alternative would be tragic.

But this transition also causes me to reflect on how the needs of my children are changing as they age. As soon as we teach them to do anything for themselves, we teach them to be a little more independent of Mum and Dad, until they are ready to take on the world without us. My thoughts on this eventuality, this end objective, came into sharp focus when Nadine (our cleaner) gave me the bird’s nest shown in the picture above. She had found it, empty and blown out of a tree in the high winds, and wondered if my boys would be interested to see it (they were, as were the oldest’s classmates). It is exquisite, delicate and yet strong, designed to protect and comfort, constructed from many tiny pieces with skill and devotion. It is also empty. The chicks have flown, it has served its purpose.

As our children’s abilities develop, their needs change and so our parenting must adapt; but how, exactly? How do we build the nest our family needs? I searched for a framework to hang my thoughts on and found this article by Focus on the Family, which divides parenting into four phases: Commander, Coach, Counsellor and Consultant. Provided we acknowledge that this describes the dominant approach suitable for the corresponding stage of development, rather than a series of step-wise changes (which would be rather artificial and completely confuse the poor child), I think this framework broadly holds true…with one sizeable exception. This framework infers that parenting starts at the age when children can take instruction, when I have certainly been a mother from age 0, if not before.

I therefore propose an additional 0th stage, of Child-Commanded Constant Carer. When children are very small, there is no option but to put yourself at their beck and call, providing food, comfort, and cleaning (of the child, their clothes, and environs) as required. As they grow and settle into a routine, you still need to do a great many things for them, and help them safely develop the ability to feed, sleep, learn, and get clean over several years. I am only just coming out of this phase, a phase in which my needs – by very necessity – ranked below theirs. I had no comprehension of how intense the pre-school years were until now, when I am looking at them in nostalgic retrospect. The rose-tinted glasses are certainly off, though: I smile as I remember cuddling and breastfeeding them as small babies, counting their new teeth, seeing them learn to walk and hearing their first words… but I am also very glad to be rid of the extreme fatigue (and having to learn what to do with a baby whilst being so tired), the difficulties of finding good childcare, the challenge of redefining my own priorities and even my identity, the frustrations of potty training.

I am ready for new adventures, and so are the boys. It’s time to move away from being a Child-Commanded Constant Carer to a Commander, with a dash of Coach; time to keep on weaving that nest, until it isn’t needed any more.

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