I got to thinking last night as I was reading the novel Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, about a trip I took with my Dad when I was a teenager. We went with my uncle and his daughter, my cousin (who will become a mother in May!), up to Yosemite during one summer vacation. Our Dad’s had it all planned out. Which trails, plural, we would hike; which gear we should buy; everything. What they hadn’t planned for was the impact of bringing two very temperamental teenage girls during their peak of self-brooding and general selfishness. My cousin and I made it on one 7 mile hike and at the end of it threw the teenage equivalent of a toddler tantrum. Our Dad’s wanted us to appreciate the beauty of Yosemite while carrying 60 pounds on our backs and we wanted to bring our Butane hair curlers and roast marshmallows. Eventually our Dad’s succumbed to the inevitable, and we left our backpacks in the luxurious tent cabins as we set off on day hikes and went river rafting.
Everything about that trip embodied what I’ve learned about parenting so far. And incidentally teenagers are a lot like toddlers: moody, unpredictable, and often resort to non-verbal body language to get their way. As parents, often our best laid plans get sidetracked, because ultimately the person at the steering wheel is not us, it’s our kids. If they wake up on the wrong side of the crib, it looks like you will be in for a rough day. My dad and uncle meticulously planned a trip that they had done with their dad decades earlier, but my cousin and I had a very different trip in mind. Sure you could look at us as bratty teens, but ultimately we did find a happy medium. Our Dad’s got what they wanted, bonding time with their daughters and my cousin and I got white water and s’mores.
Looking back on it, that time with our Dad’s was sacred, just like this precious time I am spending at home with Charlotte. It all comes down to love and forming a deeper attachment. Parenting can be about power struggles and schedule maintenance, but in most cases it is about listening to your child’s needs and wants, and accepting that your life will forever be a series of compromises. Life is no longer totally on your terms; it’s on theirs. I’ve seen parents fight to have their children adjust to fit into their former child-free lives, often resulting in tears and frustration. And the kids are usually not happy either. Ultimately the happiest families are those who create a new normal, centered around their child’s age-appropriate needs, sprinkled with the recognition that sometimes backpacking turns into rafting and a Saturday night with a toddler looks like story hour with stuffed animals.