This is a big month for everyone in my house, and for different reasons. For me, while next month marks 20 years since I became a mother, this month I book-ended that season by seeing my youngest off to university. I know a mum is always a mum, and I’ll remain loving and interested and sometimes slightly too protective. But it will be largely from afar, and via WhatsApp, so it’s impossible to ignore the fact that my season of hands-on parenting is ended. But life is all about seasons, and acknowledging the change of one to another is key to enjoying where you are. So while I am still exploring what the next one will hold for me, I’m also taking time to reflect on the one just passed. There are memories that I cherish, and others I wish someone had told me ahead of time not to create. So what would I pass on?
Whether you are entering the parenting season, are part-way through, or even wondering whether it’s a season to consider at all, here’s what has emerged as important for me from the last 20 years…
- Don’t feel pressure to have a baby. While many factors shape a person, the influence of your parents makes the biggest impression. If your heart isn’t in it, it’s OK to take more time to think about it and even decide it’s not for you.
- Pay attention. I spent the first four weeks of motherhood wearing mainly my dressing gown, weeping, and not showering to any reliable schedule. Those early days of being slam-dunked from an essentially self-centred paradigm into a routine of sleepless nights and feeding cycles didn’t feel like they flew. But they did pass, and whatever the stage you personally find tough – whether negotiating with a wilful toddler, or digging deep to find wisdom for navigating the teenage years – that phase will pass too. The overarching truth is, with all its highs and lows, this is a season you really don’t want to miss, so don’t spend it preoccupied by your phone or Netflix. I promise you, time really does fly.
- Talk to your children, and tell them the truth. When you talk to your kids you are developing your relationship, and are helping them understand the world around them. I once read that a child will only ask questions they have the capacity to understand, so take them seriously. Because we had two boys, their dad and I agreed it would be his responsibility to have “The Talk”. I was strangely pleased to have identified this rare benefit of being outnumbered in a male-dominated household. The only problem was, the kids picked their own moment and casually asked me how babies were made while I was driving them somewhere by myself. It was tempting (though perhaps unfair) to call their dad at work and ask him to explain it over the phone. His office was open-plan; were it not, I might have considered it. But I simply had to answer them then and there, and keeping the tone of that and other conversations relaxed and open gave us a healthy foundation for communications that we continue to enjoy even now.
- Have fun with them. Be silly, use affectionate nicknames, and instil family traditions that will form a warm memory-backdrop of their childhood. For years, Saturday night was “Junk Food and Movie Night” in our home. It was when I flipped through an exercise book at a primary school parent-teacher evening, and came across an essay one of my sons had written about this family ritual, that I realised how important it was.
- Don’t link your love to their behaviour. Have you ever met an adult who will never apologise or admit they’re at fault, to the point of damaging relationships around them? I’ve often wondered if at some point they’ve experienced love linked to behaviour. That could mean that any time you were having to apologise for something, there’d be a lot at stake. Teaching kids the rights and wrongs of life takes persistence, consistency and sometimes an application of consequences. But let them know that your love for them is an unchanging constant.
- Teach them accountability. Do show grace and forgiveness while guiding them out of negative behaviours. But have you ever heard a parent chastise a piece of furniture when their child has bumped themselves on it? It’s a small thing, but a misdirection. Also, no one else “made them do something”. It’s healthy for children to learn to take responsibility for their own behaviour.
- Letting go is important. It would be criminal to leave a new-born alone at home or expect it to prepare its own breakfast. But equally, it’s inappropriate to carry your 18 year old around and feed them every four hours. Somewhere in between those two obvious points are other thresholds at which it’s appropriate to give kids more independence. Be intentional. It’s good for everyone.
- Love is stronger than argument. Sometimes, especially as they get older, if your children are in danger you might need to wield authority and stand your ground in a situation. But on the whole, they’ll respond better to love and relationship than rules and control.
- You can’t do it all on your own, so pray for them. We are human and, with the best intentions, we all make mistakes. I let my kids watch Jaws. Incredibly, the movie is rated PG, so I naively watched it with them, and we all had the daylights scared out of us together. The following summer, when we holidayed next to a beautiful beach and my 7-year-old wouldn’t even get his feet wet, he told me quite politely that letting him watch Jaws had been my “biggest mistake as a parent so far”. I admired his pragmatic acknowledgement that there was still time for me to do worse. But it is true – there was. In my experience, praying for them made all the difference, and accounts for an outcome that exceeds what their dad and I could do in our own strength.
These are just some of the lessons I have learnt in my 20 years of parenting, but I’m sure there are many more. Is there any advice you would pass on to new parents? Let us know in the comments!
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.