It's a wonderful journey, and no matter how old your children are, these undeniable phases of parenting will ring true.
Volumes have been written about children's developmental progress—when they first roll from front to back, sit, walk, utter their first words, and countless other baby benchmarks. But often lost in the glow of babies' accomplishments are the parallel milestones parents achieve after their kids are born. I think that almost everyone goes through these stages of parenting.
The Womb: Nurture, Nest, and Nausea
The parenting adventure hasn't even started yet, but there are great expectations mixed with apprehension and mystery. How is it possible that each edition of Heidi Murkoff's wonderful What to Expect When You're Expecting gets thicker and more intense than the previous edition? How can there be so much to learn and prepare? What did expectant parents do before books?
Birth to 1 month: Fear, Shock, and Awe
Everything about your first newborn is, well, new! You can't even begin to know how much you don't know, but you're sure there's a lot. How did your parents ever do this? How did the neighbors? Add to that sense of ignorance a creeping sense of panic, and a sense of responsibility like nothing you've ever felt before—not with a new car, a new house, or a new job. Nothing puts more weight on your shoulders than an 8-pound baby.
1 month to 3 months: Warmth and Wide-Eyed Wonder
Now we're finally getting somewhere. Eye contact, babbling, and smiling all reassure you that there may be a little person hidden in this bundle of blankets and diapers. This is the developmental phase when intense bonding takes place because the interactions with your baby are now more consistently two-way. If he's smiling, you must be doing something right.
3 months to 7 months: Vaudeville and Variety Show Performer
Parents now go through what appears to the rest of the world to be a developmental regression: speaking baby talk, making goofy noises and silly faces, dancing daffy dances, singing senseless songs, and peek-a-boo-ing endlessly. Doing whatever it takes for your baby to give you one of those belly laughs that turns your insides to goo.
7 months to 12 months: Biographer and Curator
Although your baby's first smile and laugh are unforgettable events during the earlier stages of parenthood, the "firsts" now come fast and furiously. The first time your baby sits, pulls to a stand, cruises, takes steps, and utters a word are the firsts you'll remember most, the ones that you'll write down and film for posterity. More photographs are taken per minute during this phase of parenting than any other.
1 year to 2 years: Secret Service Agent
Parents are now in full bodyguard and gatekeeper mode, from the time their toddler wakes up until the time he's asleep for the night (if you're lucky enough that he's asleep for the night!). Your tot's mobility and curiosity are soaring, and the dangers surrounding him are becoming your constant obsession. You feel as though you always have to be one step ahead of your little adventurer.
2 years to 3 years: Designated Bad Guy (stage 1)
This is the stage when parents teach boundaries and rules to their kids, and in so doing they learn to live with being the bad guy. Parents of toddlers say "no" more than any other word, which is excellent practice for having teenagers (when you enter Designated Bad Guy stage 2). Although experts extol the virtues of setting limits and structure for kids, that doesn't help with the guilt you feel as the constant naysayer.
3 years to 5 years: Best Friend
This is the age when your kids are beginning to form their lifelong memories—and just in time because they're now able to do so many more memorable activities. Your child is now a tricycler, climber, artist, and actor. Now is also when all their questions start: Whyyyy, Mommy? Howwww, Daddy? Better get your answers ready, because this is the parenting stage when you should become your kids' best friend forever. This is when they learn to come to you not only with constant questions but also with problems you may see as exaggerated, but your kids see as front-page news. If you handle this bonding time right, they'll keep sharing issues with you when they're older and their problems are bigger.
5 years to 7 years: Separation (stage 1)
Some parents are jubilant about their child's first day of kindergarten; others, not so much. In describing grief, Elizabeth Kí¼bler-Ross noted five distinct stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Just sayin'.
7 years to 10 years: Chauffeur, Choreographer, and Cruise Director
Your kids' calendar is now filled up, and the tires on your car are worn down. Juggling your kids' schedules with your own commitments could be a full-time job for a party planner or White House Chief of Staff. But since you can't afford to hire either, this is when you had better master parental organization.
10 years to 12 years: Life Coach
The so-called tween years of your kids' lives are also tween years in yours. You're now transitioning from a period of reasonable control over your kids' lives (7 to 10 years) to the next phase (12 to 15 years), when you lack all sense of control over anything. Your crisis and stress management skills will be tested in a gentler and kinder way now than they will be in few years, so this is the time to establish healthy parental coping patterns in preparation for what's to come. This is also when you become your kids' life coach—anticipating the challenges they will have as teens, you may now feel an uncontrollable urge to tell them everything they'll ever need to know in their whole lives. That's okay, but check periodically to see whether they're still listening or if they've put their ear buds back in.
12 years to 15 years: Designated Bad Guy (stage 2)
This is when you catch yourself sounding like your own parents, something you promised you'd never do. The word no returns to your vocabulary with a vengeance. The early teen years force you to answer the question, "Am I my kids' parent or their best friend?" And the answer that most helps you get through the challenges of these parenting years should be "yes." Kids need law and order now more than ever, but they also need your friendship and love more than ever—a tricky balancing act.
15 years to 18 years: Separation (stage 2)
Now is the time for parents to develop nerves of steel; nothing else will get you through your child's getting a driver's license. Driving is your child's first launch into independence. Although their most dramatic declaration of independence will occur as you say goodbye at their dorm room a few years from now, driving is nature's way of easing parents into the idea of their kids leaving home. No longer needed to chauffeur or accompany, you now face the challenge of adjusting to the new reality of having near-grown kids. You'll go to bed before they do, so remember to ask them to wake you when they're home for the night.
18 years and Beyond: Long Distance
For many parents, college means empty bedrooms at home. Parenting isn't over, it's just more remote. Read my New York Times piece 8 Tips for Keeping Adult Children Close for some tips.
As you notice your children's growth and development, be conscious of yours as well. Enjoy each stage of parenting for what it is: another leg in the unique journey of your life.