5 things I’ve learned about parenting in the last 5 years

Jackson stands in front of a

Our oldest son, Jackson, celebrated his 5th birthday today, in full 5-year-old style: a Ninja Turtle party, a trip to Legoland and a whole lot of junk food. 

Every year around his birthday, I become the misty-eyed “I can’t believe my baby’s so grown up” parent. I can remember the moment he was born in vivid detail — the mix of panic and joy we felt; the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital; the shaking in my arms the first time I held him. It’s hard to believe that was five years ago. 

While there’s lots of truth in the cliche that, from a parent’s perspective, childhood goes by in a blink, I can at the same time appreciate just how long five years is, how much happens in that time. The 5 pound, 4 ounce, red-faced little baby didn’t turn into a boisterous (almost) kindergartener overnight; that transformation has taken 1,825 days, and Ashlee and I have felt each one of them. They’ve been challenging, rewarding, hilarious, heartbreaking, confusing — and those days have already given us so many truths about parenting that I would probably never have been able to fathom the night Jackson came into this world. 

After five years of being a parent, here’s what I have realized: 

1. You know nothing.
After days of well wishers visiting the hospital when Jackson was born and lots of help from nurses, Ashlee and I were a bit shell shocked when we got home with our new addition. What the hell are we supposed to do now? Sure, we’d practiced diapering and baby carrying before Jackson arrived, but those activities felt totally different with a real, live — very tiny and very fragile and very all ours to take care of! — baby. That feeling of utter ignorance has certainly not dissipated over the last five years. 

Because, with the first, absolutely everything is new: Will letting him cry it out so his bleary-eyed moms can sleep turn him into a sociopath? How do we encourage him to walk without putting too much pressure on him but still making him feel confident? How do I calm a raging tantrum? When should he transition to a big boy bed? How do we explain big, real-word concepts to him without fueling anxiety? How can I make him feel less nervous on his first day of kindergarten? 

As Jackson has gotten older, our questions have gotten bigger — and much less able to be satiated through Google. Parenting throws you for loop after loop, and you have to eventually lean into humility and accept that you’re often doing this job blindly. At first, embracing that reality was terrifying; however, the more question marks we’ve encountered, the more liberating it’s been to acknowledge that we — and, likely, most parents — just don’t have the answers, and that’s OK.

Jackson smiles in front of his fifth birthday cake, which has a Ninja Turtle's face on it and a 5 candle.

2. You know everything. 
As much as we’ve accepted that parenting is a blindfold act, sometimes you don’t need clarity to realize you already have the answers. 

Recently, we took the kids to a neighborhood splash park and, of course, two minutes into the adventure, Jackson got bowled over by a middle-schooler. He nodded his head and smiled when I asked if he was OK but I’ve seen enough real smiles over the last five years to know how fake that one was — and that he was holding it in to save face in front of the other kids. So, I quickly whisked him away to where we were sitting and he immediately burst into tears and buried his face in my hug. After some quick help from the first aid kit in Ashlee’s car (parenting pro tip: they do come in handy!) and some backrubs, he was fine. 

The me of five years ago may have panicked and not known how to react when Jackson got hurt, but the more you parent, the more you get to know their emotions, their strengths, their weaknesses, even their facial expressions — and you respond instinctively. As much as kids can make you feel like a bumbling idiot, it’s a tremendously good feeling when you realize how well you really do know them.

3. Lowering your output can improve your outcomes.
I’ve always been someone who likes to be on the move — and that’s carried over into parenting. Throughout Jackson’s toddlerhood, and especially during our many months of togetherness at the start of the pandemic, I tried to keep him as busy as I like to be: walks around the neighborhood, made-up scavenger hunts, obstacle courses in the backyard, baking cupcakes — and when the threat of COVID dissipated, trips to the library, playgrounds and anywhere else in a 20-mile radius that could help me occupy a little one. While many of those activities have been great tools for education and entertainment, they come with their own headaches: Keeping young kids on the move has to happen around their nap and mealtimes; there’s the constant threat of a toddler tantrum or bathroom incident; packing and unpacking bags to go on any excursion is an adventure unto itself. 

Some of the best days Jackson and I have had together in his first five years — including with his siblings, August and Avery — have been the unscheduled ones. Just last week, when the babies were sleeping and it was blazing hot, Jackson and I wandered out back and ended up having a killer hose fight; I captured a hilarious video of him dancing with the hose like a fool that I know I’ll cherish for years. On our recent vacation at the beach, one of my favorite experiences wasn’t jumping in the waves or riding the ferris wheel but just laying on the floor playing a card game with Jackson and Ashlee. And I remember vividly the last night I had with Jackson before I had the babies: He and I spent a solid hour laying on our living room floor, blowing a tissue into the air and catching it — even almost two years later, I remember his giggle in this incredibly laidback and unplanned moment. 

We parents put a lot of pressure on ourselves to plan out memories for our kids, but I’ve found that those that really matter the most don’t take any planning.

4. You still matter.
This has been one of the toughest lessons of parenting. 

Becoming a parent changes your priorities immediately: Your life becomes about someone else in an instant. In the beginning, it’s the endless need: diaper change after diaper change, cleaning spit-up, making bottles, burping, tiptoeing around the house through naps, rocking in the middle of the night, going days without sleep. And as they become more independent, the needs change, but the fact that you’re their everything doesn’t — you’re the provider of the basic needs like food and shelter, the one who can offer comfort and compassion, the person to teach them values and how to interact with the world they will one day enter. 

Jen, Ashlee and Jackson

That’s a lot. And being all those things can make it very hard to remember who you were before you were a parent. Not to mention, this transformation is all happening as parents experience new anxieties, unbelievable amounts of pressure, changing relationship dynamics. At a time when we pay the least attention to ourselves, we should really be paying the most. 

I was forced to this reality during the pandemic, when the pressures of caring for a toddler in a newly remote work environment had me having frequent heart palpitations and panic attacks. I started making small changes like trying out yoga and getting back to running, habits I had to resurrect when the pressure was dialed back up with the addition of twins. Having three under 5 has made it pretty difficult to practice too much self-care, but even little tweaks can send a big message. 

Pre-dinner time is hell in this house, but instead of turning my Spotify to “Toddler Tunes” to try to soothe the hangry hooligans like I normally do, lately I’ve taken to turning on my own music while I cook. So, there’s Bruce Springsteen crooning some classics while I stir the Ninja Turtles mac and cheese on the stove, August and Avery claw at each of my legs and scream, and Jackson bounces off walls. A small gesture but it takes my blood pressure down a notch! And cuts through the chaotic din of my kitchen to remind me that I too matter.

5. Parenting is equal parts joy and grief. 
In just a few short weeks, Jackson will be on the school bus heading to kindergarten. As much as I’m excited for him to meet this new milestone head-on, at the same time I’m already missing my little preschooler. And so it has gone. 

Four years ago, I was so proud of him for learning to walk but just as quickly yearning for his silly little scoot along the rug. Three years ago, I rocked him to sleep in his rocking chair for the very last time; after so many nights of wishing he would soothe himself and let me sleep, as soon as I saw that starting to happen, I missed those middle-of-the-night wake-up calls. Two years ago, our walks around the neighborhood hand in hand — where I often ended up carrying him home — turned into me chasing Jackson in his monster truck, on his scooter and, later, on his bike, yelling “Stop at the stop sign and wait!” every 30 seconds; I was grateful for the pressure off my hip but wishing it back at the same time. Last year, as he stepped into big brotherhood with incredible grace, I was so proud of him and also just as sad to say goodbye to Jackson as an only child. 

Saying goodbye is a perpetual part of parenting. We’re helping them grow up but, inherent in that, is that they’re growing away from who they just were. And as parents, we have the privilege to know all of the people our children have been — but also the impossible task of saying goodbye to each of them when it’s time. 

So today, I’m saying goodbye to Jackson my 4-year-old — my boy with the boundless energy, an obsession with chocolate and the Ninja Turtles, a memory that could rival any genius and an imagination that brings out his true spirit; who’s sensitive but feisty, can negotiate like a teeny lawyer, is immensely proud of growing his very first tomato plant and sometimes has meltdowns because he forgets how to yawn. 

I have no idea who he’ll be tomorrow, the day he starts kindergarten or six months from now. But I can’t wait to see.