The minute the first pee stick shows a red line, you’ve enlisted.
As the months progress and you choose to serve in the Parents Corps — a volunteer army if ever there was one — you are fueled by the joy of preparing for your new charge. Pregnancy trains your body to behave in new and somewhat brutal ways, leaving it both reformed and exhausted in the process. Your partner is put through the paces too, mentally and sometimes physically, as together you prepare for the unknown tiny combatant that’s about to change your life forever.
Then the baby finally comes, and suddenly you understand that all the Lamaze breathing, nursery painting, and childproofing you’ve been doing has been a sorry boot camp for the rigorous realities of real deal parenting.
Feeling unsure of my “parenthood is a battlefield” analogy? Consider this: who besides infants torture helpless captives every few hours by waking them to jarringly loud noises and worse (i.e., flying excrement)? If you thought, “the enemy,” and then immediately took it back, don’t be so hard on yourself. You were actually a P.O.W from the aforementioned pee stick. And the Stockholm Syndrome of loving your captors beyond reason is the hallmark of your parental tours of duty (and doodie).
Every day then becomes a fight to clear the brush and find the gold for your family. There is no map, no guidebook, no strategy session that defines your personal mission; over time, you realize that honing in on your values, listening to your gut, and having eyes and ears everywhere are the only true weapons you have in your arsenal.
Sometimes the smallest battles are also the most devastating. Drawing boundaries can be the hardest part of your mission, but keeping the troops in line is key to winning the biggest war of all: training your child so s/he is well prepared to soldier successfully through life.
You don’t get a medal for your good work, but each year on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, you do qualify for some nice cards and maybe a scented candle or some vanilla body lotion or a shaving kit.
The early years of engagement feel so hard when you have boots on the ground, running around frantically to keep the kiddies both busy and safe. Today’s moms and dads are charged with an especially difficult mission that is complicated by the ever-changing definitions of the very active verb parenting, not to mention overzealous comrades that sometimes feel more like the enemy than anything else.
One day, with my arms full of two squirming babies, I asked my mother-in-law — who then was in in the thick of the tween and teen years with her own children — how would I ever survive.
“You think you’ll never forget any of it,” she said, “But trust me, you’ll look back on this time and won’t remember a thing. And by then your kids won’t be speaking to you anyways, and so, it gets better. ”
What she said was meant to soothe, but it actually gave me a glimpse into the heart of darkness. She helped me realize that if I did my job right, then in a relatively short amount of time the whole system of dependence would naturally wind down and render at least some of my role obsolete. The horror embedded in this statement then sent me into a tailspin and out to buy a new camera and camcorder. (Remember when those where two separate items?)
As if recording every moment could somehow slow the onslaught of time.
And yet, taking snaps of the kiddies, buying school portraits and team pictures, and filming endless streams of video do serve a wonderful purpose: it’s how we record their victories… and ours, too. The reminders of what makes the daily struggle worth it after all.
So when my son and 30 of his friends headed to their first high school homecoming dance, I was more than happy to have them launch from our house. Whenever I get a chance to capture a special moment, I take it: I’m very clear that these are the good old days, and someday will comprise my favorite war stories.
I spent my time that night alternating between trying to feed everyone snacks before they left on a party bus to their destination and trying to snap a few pics on my iPhone. I messed up my strategy, though, and found myself holding a giant tray of food when suddenly all the kids made a beeline into the bus with a handful of parents on their heels.
As a few of us watched the brave souls who dared to step into teen territory, fighting the good fight to get just one more picture. Next to me a dad muttered, “Looks like the Parents’ Last Stand.”
That comment scored a direct hit with me. A wave of emotion sent me ducking in the house for cover (not to mention to grab a few tissues).
Because that insight was so right on target; more and more, my son is drawing lines that he asks me not to cross. The night before at the homecoming football game, for example, I was under strict orders not to talk to him, look at him, or attempt any other type of overt communication. I know he felt like he was being diplomatic, and only because I so clearly remember my own struggle for freedom did I fully respect all of the conditions of his release.
Nowadays, the furtive pictures and videos that we are “allowed” to take are actually diversion tactics employed by the not-so-tiny-combatants and are meant to pacify parental thirst for domination. But the truth is it’s almost impossible for us to map the road tweens and teens travel in their own daily lives. And today’s army of kids are almost impenetrable with so many covert tools at their fingertips — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Kik, YouTube, Snapchat, Vine, IM/Group chats, and a bunch of other things you and I probably don’t know about.
We can demand full access to all of these accounts, and that may be a good short-term strategy, but aren’t we are in it for the long haul? So in my opinion, training the troops to be responsible for what goes down within their own borders requires trust, privacy, and above all, giant leaps of faith.
Because in the end, we can decide to play either role: captor or liberator. And which one do you think is really going to serve your kid best?
So if you see me reach for my iPhone during a keeper moment, just remind me that the battle to get the best pic isn’t the one I should be fighting by now. The best way to win the war is to step back, give the troops some space, and enjoy watching them go off on their own missions to conquer the world.