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Reflections from the mother of a teenager

On Jan. 17, my son, Ben, turned 13. I am officially the parent of a teenager.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that we brought home our newborn son and suddenly realized we weren’t just baby-sitting? The real parents were us. And we were woefully unqualified for the most important job in our lives.

At the time, I thought that all my friends who had middle-schoolers or even elementary-schoolers had it together. They had figured out this mystery that is parenting, and I would never get there.

Now I realize that there are still a lot of mysteries, and no one really has it together or has their children fully figured out, but here are 13 things I’ve learned since becoming a mom. They are all things I wish someone had told me.

The days are long, the years are short. I don’t know where I first read this, but it is so true. The newborn phase felt like it would never end. I would count down the hours until I could hopefully get two hours of sleep in a row. Yet, I now treasure those days, especially the closeness of a nursing or sleeping baby. You can never be that physically close again.

The baby years are physically exhausting; the older years are emotionally exhausting. I would trade those sleepless nights, those days of chasing around a 2-year-old, if I didn’t have to go through grade school bullies or friendship drama again. You can kiss a boo-boo when they are learning to walk, but the emotional wounds are harder to heal.

You really do forget the pain of pregnancy and labor. When I was pregnant with Ben, I thought, “How could I ever forget this?” Then, he became a baby, a toddler, a 2-year-old. I realized just how much I had forgotten when I was pregnant with my daughter, Ava. And now, I don’t think I even remember how to diaper a baby.

You can never love anyone more than your children. Maybe you should love yourself more or your husband more, but true, unselfish love only happens with children. It can be quite magical. It can be overwhelming.

You can put yourself first, sometimes. It’s really hard to do, but children need to see that you take care of yourself, that you respect yourself. That you have individual interests and your own friends. And you’re a better mom after you’ve spent some time away for yourself. Never underestimate the power of a parental timeout.

Even after day care, you still have no money. I used to think that after we got out of diapers and out of day care, the paycheck would stretch further. Not true. Big kids are expensive. They want more things. They have more activities, more school supplies, more expensive clothing. And they eat more, a lot more.

Children need breathing room. I see so many helicopter moms who are afraid to let their children fall down or afraid to let them make their own choices. Their children become afraid to make choices, afraid to try new things. But not too much room. Even as they get older, they need to know that I am close at hand, even when they roll their eyes or sigh under their breaths, which is the current language they are speaking.

If you’re not saying, “No,” more than you’re saying “Yes,” you’re not doing your job. A friend said this to me one day when I was struggling with drawing the line about something Ben wanted. She was right. He really needed a hard and fast rule, not a wishy-washy Mama. I definitely don’t have this one down, but I’m working on it.

Puberty happens before you know it, and it’s really long. We’re barely at the start of it, and it feels like it’s never going to end. I couldn’t believe that by third grade my kids needed deodorant or that I’d be buying sports bras for my daughter. I so miss the smell of a baby’s head.

Celebrate the everyday accomplishments with wild abandon. Dance around the room when someone uses the potty. Cheer for that soccer goal or the A on the report card or even the C in that really tough math class. You are your child’s best cheerleader. And the good times are really important to savor, because there will be a lot of bad times, too.

Everyone does not get a trophy. Kids need to know that they can be bad at something. They don’t have to be perfect, and they don’t even have to be good. A good reality check will serve them in life, will teach them how to deal with disappointments.

Motherhood is not for sissies. OK, I hate that word, but when I received a card with this expression on it at a particularly hard time, I had to laugh. It was so right. No job is as hard as this one. You never really get a vacation from it, because even if you’re out of town or they’re at camp, you’re still worrying about them.

No job is as rewarding. Thank you, kids, for letting me be your mom. It’s made me a better person. Hopefully, I haven’t messed you up too bad, but that’s what counseling is for, right?