As we entered the local pizza joint in the small town we were visiting for the weekend, my husband and I felt a tantrum brewing. Charlie, my youngest, was already in tears in the parking lot and less than a minute after entering, he was arguing with one of his brothers. As I attempted to redirect him he started to yell. We scrambled to our table and prepared to tackle to the buffet. My 3 year old wanted control but I couldn’t give it to him. A room full of customers turned their heads as he let out some kicks and yells because I did not allow him to help himself to the salad bar (it was over two feet above the top of his head). I tried to get him to our table and he crumpled to the floor screaming. My husband whisked him out as I managed to get drinks and plates of food for the other two boys. I was already covered with sweat. They came back into the restaurant again. Charlie immediately wanted control of an entire plate of cheese. He yelled and screamed again. My husband removed him again. My heart beat faster as I felt every set of eyes staring at us. I wish I could say this was an unusual evening for us. It isn’t though. This is I why we rarely eat in restaurants these days. It is also why when we are out of town we pick restaurants with buffets. Don’t get me wrong- I love being waited on in a sit-down restaurant. But right now- this is our life. I have three small boys under the age of 9 and being waited on at a restaurant is a luxury I simply do not enjoy with my family. And if I can, I avoid it. I reminded myself it won’t always be like this as I feel sweat dripping down my back. I wondered when my husband and Charlie were going to come back in. As they reentered for the third time I felt myself holding my breath. I let it out slowly as Charlie sat in the chair with tears still on his cheeks. He started to eat and I silently prayed the rest of the meal would be calmer. Then as he grabbed his drink to take a sip, he spilled almost an entire cup of ice water onto his lap. The shrieks were even louder this time. I gathered napkins and attempted to dry him the best I could. No longer even caring about the sideways looks and stares I was getting, I just wanted to eat my meal.
I avoided eye contact with anyone and silently willed this lunch to be over quickly. And then, as my poor husband finally went to get a plate of food for himself, an older lady came over to our table. She smiled knowingly at me and said, “I remember those days.” I wondered if she was going to tell me it gets easier. Maybe she was going to empathize with the difficulty of dealing with an irrational three-year-old. She continued, “They grow up though. And then it gets hard. Much harder. THIS- THIS IS EASY.” And then she walked away.
I choked back tears as I looked straight ahead trying to figure out why a stranger who could clearly tell I was anxious felt the need to come over and tell me that as bad as this situation feels right now- it will get worse. If she clearly remembered those days I don’t think she would feel compelled to tell me it only gets worse. I will never understand this phenomenon that has been occurring to me since I had children. I am a stay at home mom. I spend almost every hour my child is awake with him. I wipe his tears, I fix his food, I entertain him, cajole him to clean up his messes, try to bathe him, do my best to teach him to be kind. I attempt to foster a love for learning, try to limit his screen time while allowing him to explore his creativity and also teaching him to navigate in this world. I am exhausted, often feel overwhelmed, and doubt myself almost daily. I JUST wanted to go into a restaurant and eat lunch without every single person in the restaurant staring at me. And when my child yelled, screamed, and acted a fool and my husband systematically removed him until he sat appropriately, I felt the judgment of all the other people in the room. I know these moments with small children are fleeting and I know that as they get bigger they have bigger problems. But this is my life right now. And showering by myself, getting out the door without someone screaming and melting down (myself included) and eating in public without tantrums are extremely rare. While the difficulties of raising children will no doubt expand as my boys grow, it does not make where I am sitting right now any easier. And to walk up to a complete stranger who is clearly struggling and tell them that it only gets worse seems like rubbing salt into an already scraped knee. And I will never understand it.
Parenting is hard. The hardest job ever. When you think about shaping the lives of these tiny little beings that you love more than you ever imagined was possible, the pressure is almost unbearable. The baby phase when no one sleeps is crushingly hard. The learning to walk phase where playgrounds and fireplaces seem scarier than a den full of hungry lions brings anxiety out in even the calmest parents. Raising strong-willed children can challenge the patience of even the calmest human beings (my husband is an example). Each child and each phase brings its own unique sets of challenges and beautiful moments. My sister has described it to me like this- when they are little it is physically much harder, but when they are older it is emotionally much harder. That makes so much sense to me. But difficulties that come in the future do not make the current difficulties any easier.
Because here is the deal. I see my friends sending their children off to middle school, to high school, and even to college. Intellectually I understand that one day I will miss having young children who are innocent and need me. I can not comprehend what it will feel like to watch one of my boys drive off in a car. But this does not negate my current situation and it does not make dealing with an irrational three-year-old any easier.
Sometimes I imagine parenting as a series of mountains we are all climbing. No two mom’s paths are exactly similar but we all have valleys, hills, and steep slopes we must learn to navigate. Sometimes we stumble, many times we fall. I see the experienced fellow mothers of teens on the next mountain ahead of me. My friends sending off their children to college are on a mountain even further in the distance from me. Someday when I reach the top of my steepest mountain, I imagine myself looking down below to the fellow mothers just starting the steep climb. And I will have a choice. I hope I will see them with compassion and understanding. And rather than telling them “That part is easy. It is only going to get harder. Much, much, much harder,” I hope to extend them a hand and help them climb up the mountain.