The Best Phase
Dear Exhausted Parents Of Toddlers: Hang In There, The Golden Years Are Coming!
It’s about to get so good.
Everyone knows that the early years of parenting are just a series of phases… phase after phase after phase, one blending into the other. There’s the (dreaded) sleep regression. The (also dreaded) nap strike. The nursing strike. The bath strike. (So many strikes!) The mommy phase, the daddy phase, the no-socks phase, the I’m-a-dog-and-I-will-only-bark-my-replies phase.
Some phases are blips, and others seem to drag on eternally; some are more maddening than others. Some nearly bring you to your knees. Regardless, the old adage holds true: This too shall pass. (Eventually.)
And then there are the handful of phases that we all hope for — dream about, really — and want to drag out for as long as humanly possible. First smiles, first giggles, those are nice, but most notable among these dream periods are the parenting golden years. In case you aren’t familiar, this is a precious stretch during which there’s more sleep and fewer tantrums; more self-sufficiency but still plenty of cuddling; fewer naps but more adventures. Clocking in somewhere in between kindergarten and teenage hell, it’s the sweet spot.
These years feel like a time of more yes than no.
Gone are the endless hours at the playground — “watch me! watch me!” Buh-bye to bulky items of baby gear (stroller, packable crib, highchair) that you have to lug on every weekend away. Sayonara to the never-ending earworms like “Baby Shark.” No potty accidents, no swing-pushing, no teething — no problem!
Instead, what you’ve got are kids who are totally down to watch the new season of The Great British Bake Off with you, who can appreciate programs like Modern Family, Blackish, and even old episodes of The Wonder Years. They eat real food (maybe even sushi!). You can move on from Connect 4 and Candyland and get into the more nuanced worlds of Catan or Clue. With any luck, you’ll have a kid who’s fully capable of fixing themselves (or you) a snack — and sometimes even a whole meal. (Especially if they’ve been watching those baking shows!)
These are the years before the whiplash-inducing moodiness and the all-friends-all-the-time focus of the late tween/teenage years sets in, before the truly bigger problems that accompany bigger kids. It’s a time when the kids still really want to be with you— when they’re only mildly embarrassed by you. (It varies, of course. My daughters are 10 and 13, and the side-eye and eye-rolling started to creep in around the turn to double digits.) They often still hug you tightly at drop-off but head into school without any of the teary looks that may have marked the early years.
If you’ve held off on certain kinds of travel — perhaps the idea of heading overseas or up a mountain with little kids seemed entirely unappealing? — the golden years mean those are suddenly on the table. They are old enough to remember these trips, and they’re often learning stuff in school that primes them perfectly.
These years feel like a time of more yes than no: Yes, you can stay up this year to watch the fireworks (a missed bedtime doesn’t cause the same after-effects as it did in previous years). Yes, you can go on the roller coaster (you’re finally tall enough). Yes, you can make me a cup of tea in the microwave or that insane “mug cake” recipe you saw on YouTube.
These are the years when kids “give as much as they take.”
But wait, there’s more! Somewhere in those elementary school years your kid(s) may start going to sleepovers, aka a night off for you in which you don’t have to pay a babysitter or prostrate yourself before your mother-in-law. And if you are able (and choose) to send your child to a sleepaway camp, well, that’s a lot of nights to yourself in a row.
Being able to finally put your feet up for a hot second isn’t the only paradigm shift. These are the years when kids “give as much as they take,” says SuChin Pak, who introduced me to the concept of the golden age on Add To Cart, the shopping podcast she co-hosts. (Her kids are 9 and 11.) “I am getting as much out of the time we spend together as I am giving,” says Pak. “Whereas the ratio wasn’t always that way when they were much younger. I truly feel like I woke up one day and I am living a totally different life. Something in their brains clicked online that allowed them to see me as a full human and changed the way we have conversations.”
Another reason Pak is really leaning into these years of parenting, she says, is that she found so many of those first few years of being a mom to be deeply hard. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around trying to nurture my child in the way that I wanted to or was capable of,” she says. “And the exhaustion just exacerbated my anxiety. But now that we’ve reached this phase where the kids have more independence and fewer physical demands, the contrast is just so stark.”
That’s not to say that the early years of parenting aren’t studded with magical, beautiful, and precious moments, but for many people, it’s only during these “big kid” years that you feel like you’re hitting your stride. I was definitely never any good with pretend play or pattycake, but I do relish the longer, deeper talks and even the complicated tussles that come with parenting kids through the elementary school and tween years.
With a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old, writer Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct and Fat Talk: Parenting In the Age of Diet Culture, feels like she’s “just on the verge” of this delicious stage and is relishing some of the small-but-huge changes that are unfolding. “We just got back from a beach vacation with lots of swimming and trying fun things like kayaks and stand-up paddleboards,” she told me. “Both of my kids can swim now, and we were able to have so much fun time just hanging out in the water together.”
Simple downtime at home is much more relaxing too, says Sole-Smith. “We can also now have long stretches where everyone is just kind of puttering around together — maybe I'm reading a book, the kids are drawing or playing, Dan's throwing in loads of laundry, or I'm cooking. Like light domestic labor is happening but it can actually get done because the kids need less and we can also just drink coffee and read the paper and all kind of be together without feeling like, as the parent, I'm in constant referee or entertainment mode.”
Like Pak, Sole-Smith struggled in the early years — for one thing, her older daughter's first three years involved a dozen surgeries and many hospital stays, and then came a new baby soon after the medical drama subsided. “I am absolutely finding that graduating from infancy/toddlerhood/preschool is corresponding to a major increase in my enjoyment of them as people, and how much I enjoy time together as a family,“ she says.
It's also a time when your own memories of childhood truly kick in — few of us actually remember the toddler years in great detail, but fourth or fifth grade? Wow, I remember so much — the books I read late into the night, the snacks I devoured after school, how it felt to be the last one picked up after gymnastics.
“I relate more directly to my kids now that they are ages I remember being,” says Sole-Smith. “I also really love having random chats and even pretty deep conversations. Like finding out what they think about mortality or is there a God, or periods and gender identity. I just love, love, love learning more about the people they are and are becoming.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be so sweet without the bitter — the ever-present awareness that the golden years won’t last forever. I’m actually a few years late to writing this piece, given that my oldest just entered teendom. For plenty of kids, when the teen years arrive hormones skyrocket, school gets tougher, the desire for independence increases, and things can go haywire for a time. They may no longer relish family game night or cuddling on the couch. You might find it hard to find anything on any streaming service you can agree to watch. And then, well, then they’re gone, off to college or whatever next adventure awaits.
The tick-tock of time is something Ilana Wiles, the brains behind the blog and social media presence MommyShorts, hears every day. (Her daughters, like mine, are 10 and 13.) “When your kids get to a certain age, you know the ‘end’ is coming, so you treasure that time with them so much more,” she says. “I’ve heard so many stories about how they don’t want to be with anyone but their friends when they’re teenagers, so I’m not sure if they will stop wanting to hang out with me.”
These days, the time Wiles spends with her kids feels more intentional and more of a true choice. “They don’t need you every second to stay alive. They can go into their room and be with friends. But when you are all together on the couch watching a movie — you all chose to be there.”
When my kids were younger, I used to look at their smooshy little faces and try to envision how they’d look when they were older — like one of those apps that does age progression. These days, I find myself doing just the opposite — looking for the toddler they used to be, wondering where the smoosh went, and straining to hear traces of their old voices. With one eye squinting at the past and one eye looking ahead, I’m just catching the fleeting moments like fireflies, both wishing I could freeze time and get ready for whatever lies ahead. After all, this too is just a phase.
Liz Krieger is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Health, The Cut, Travel + Leisure, and many more. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two daughters, two inscrutable cats, and one exceedingly scruffy rescue dog. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.