The answer is, there is no escape hatch when you're a parent, says author-journalist Barbara Unell, an expert on parenting issues. Once you have a child, you're on a lifelong journey that can best be enjoyed by understanding and accepting the changes that children make to your life, writes Unell and co-author Jerry Wyckoff, PhD, in their new book, The Eight Seasons of Parenthood (Random House, New York, 2000).
"The myth is so pervasive that parenthood is a finite experience,'' says Unell in a healthAtoZ interview. "The truth of the matter is, it's never done."
A mother of twins, Unell is the former editor and co-founder of the national parenting magazine Twins, and has hosted and written the nationally syndicated parenting information radio feature "Kid''s Stuff." She and Wyckoff, a family psychologist, write about the first-hand experiences of parents, such as Tommie, a 53-year-old mother who recoiled in shock at the words coming from her teenage daughter - "I hate you, leave me alone, stop trying to control me."
"I knew that my daughter's explosions were signs that she was on the road toward self-sufficiency and independence, my destination when I was her age," says Tommie in the book. "So the only way for me to get through this period of her life was to tell myself that I could handle going through the pain of giving birth to an adult.''
How you react to the emotional roller coaster that is parenthood is the key to your contentment, Unell says. Here are some of her recommendations on how you can take charge of your happiness:
- Know your hot buttons. When your fourth-grade daughter is ostracized for not being good at jumping rope, that can rekindle the playground taunts and teasing you also endured at her age. "We have the power to determine how we respond emotionally. A parent needs to get in touch with his own emotions and thoughts,'' Unell says.
- Think positive. Don't take your children's offensive remarks personally, particularly if they are teens. "This too shall pass" is an apt mantra for anyone who's raising an adolescent.
- Be willing to change. Parents are in total control when their child is an infant, but that changes as your son or daughter grows older. Parents should celebrate, not dread or stifle, their child's natural desire to be self-sufficient. "Parents have to change along with their child. It's really healthy to look at parenthood as a season of changes," Unell says.
- Treat your children as you would other people. Sure, you have to set limits and be a disciplinarian when rules are broken. But cooperation, respect, and empathy - not yelling, screaming and demanding - are the best building blocks for a strong, lasting relationship with your children. "Think of parenthood as a journey that is about self control, not about controlling others,'' says Unell. "Parenting is a process of teaching a child how to be self-sufficient, responsible and self-controlled."
- Never forget the miracle of birth. Parents get so excited when a child is born, but are surprised and overwhelmed when the work of raising a child begins. Instead of looking at a 2-year-old's tantrum as an embarrassment, why not see it as an amazing display of his or her growing assertiveness. "Find a sense of miracle that you had when your child was born - try to find that every day of your life,'' Unell says.
The changing seasons
Here is the authors' list of the eight seasons of parenthood, and the child's approximate age for each season:
- Celebrity (pregnancy) The self-absorption of impending parenthood.
- Sponge (birth to 1 year old) Surrendering your former identity to the essentials of caring for a baby.
- Family Manager (ages 1-5) Organizing and juggling the business of life with toddlers and preschoolers.
- Travel Agent (ages 6-12) Stepping back - and stepping up your role of activities manager - as your children go through school.
- Volcano Dweller (ages 13-17) Exercising damage control in your own life with teenagers.
- Family Remodeler (ages 18-24+) Re-evaluating life as a parent of new adults.
- Plateau Parent (ages 25-49+) Reliving your childhood through grandchildren.
Rebounder (50+) Accepting and embracing the parent/child