Parenting is a lifelong sport.
So much is made of the milestones in infancy and early childhood – smiling, crawling, babbling, walking. But the truth is that important milestones just keep coming.
Punctuated by the end of another school year that coincided with sobering and shocking reminders about the world we live in, I see my twin daughters entering adolescence and I have to ask, Where has the time gone?
As I sit down to write this, I’m flanked by photos of my girls as toddlers, remnants of their kindergarten art projects, and cards they gave me for various celebrations. I remember each of these moments with such clarity.
The “cheese!” of the picture, the proud smiles upon presentation of their creations, and the lump in my throat as I read their sweet notes of love.
I feel lucky to have those mementos, and I chose to preserve them because they spark big feelings and meaningful memories just by looking at them. But surely, there are moments and milestones that aren’t so embodied. Memories I cherish that won’t find a corner on my desk.
And those milestones feel like they’re coming in a big rush right now as my “babies” transition to junior high. And, just when I feel like I’ve mastered the art of parenting children, I realize I now have two burgeoning young women in front of me.
And in front of them is a very scary world.
While I feel nostalgia for the days when they were younger, I also feel nostalgia for a time when being a child seemed less complicated. While every generation has faced its ills, watching my girls become teenagers learning to navigate this world on their own, I am easily paralyzed by the variety of threats to their safety and well-being today.
In the last month alone, we’ve been reminded that children may not be safe at school; women’s health is on a precipice; and a far-away war that feels quite close in this globalized world is carrying on with little end in sight.
The anniversary of George Floyd’s murder reminds us that our society is deeply violent and unequal; and COVID-19 continues to disrupt families and communities as cases surge nationally. Meanwhile, a hyperlocal crisis among a population of pelicans reminds us that our planet is ailing.
It’s a lot to process. And for young children and teenagers, who are still developing their identities, their relationships, and their brains, they may struggle to conceptualize and integrate these global, local, and interpersonal challenges. All while just trying to be a kid.
It’s no wonder that, even before the pandemic, teenagers in the U.S. showed a 40% increase between 2009 and 2019 in experiencing feelings of hopelessness and sadness. More recently, the CDC found that anxiety and depression increased significantly among youth, with nearly 45% of teens reporting persistent feelings of sadness during the pandemic.
We see these trends active in our own community, with mental health and well-being especially compromised for children exposed to acute and intergenerational traumas such as abuse, neglect and domestic violence.
And while I am comforted in knowing my daughters are loved and protected — to the extent that I can control — there are so many unknowns. And this is why I pine for the finger-paint days and wish the milestones could slow down just for a moment.
Teaching my girls to live in this world is a lifelong sport — one I have to train for each and every day. And entering this next period of the game feels like it comes with a new set of rules.
They are celebrating their graduation into junior high school, and I get teary eyed just thinking about them in their caps and gowns. As I support and celebrate this transition, I know I need to recalibrate my expectations about almost everything.
I have to adjust how we relate, how we connect, and how I capture the moments and memories that mean the most. It might not be round-faced photos and hand-drawn cards, but it will be a new reflection of them as young adults absorbing, resisting, and shaping the world around them.
For those of you who have gone through this time of change with your own loved ones, I welcome your wisdom. For those journeying through parenthood with me, I encourage you to join me in slowing down to celebrate the present and cherishing the good.
Let us celebrate our children’s strength and resilience in spite of the compounding traumas they wade through every day. For those who despair about the future we’re facing, I hope you can find hope in the young people around you.
When I look to my daughters, I see tenacity and possibility, and this carries me forward.
And while I’m not sure exactly how we got here — as I stare in awe at two 12-year-old young women who I’m certain were babbling and bouncing just moments ago — I know it’s worth treasuring every milestone. Between graduations, birthday parties, summer trips, and lazy days at home, we will adapt and adjust to the new rules of the game.
In that process, I’ll try to replace nostalgia for the past with hope for the future that these young people will create. And then, I’ll do whatever I can to support them along the way.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.