“When my friends without kids tell me they’re ‘so busy,’ I have to laugh quietly to myself. Juggling two children, two mortgages, and two jobs, I have to run fast just to stand still. It all often seems like an incredible grind. I drop into bed exhausted, and then rev up the engines yet again when the alarm goes off in the morning. I feel a growing need for some sense of perspective. Otherwise, what’s the point? No doubt, I love my children SO MUCH. But what IS the point? Just a grind until they’re launched themselves? And then when my daughter becomes a mom herself, she just gets to go through it all over again?”

You ask some very powerful questions, and in response, we’d like to offer this advice.

Parenthood is a long journey, a marathon, not a sprint.

It begins before your first child is born: that incredible moment when you know a new being has been conceived, the long pregnancy, fixing up the baby’s room, finally the birth itself, and then the little breathing bundle, the life delivered into your arms. The details differ a bit if you’ve adopted a child, but the essentials are the same: anticipation, nervousness, and an extraordinary love.

Some parts are a blur and others a long slow grind. Feeding, diapers, long nights with the baby, the first steps, the first words, the first everything. Tantrums, story time, bouncing a ball, wiping a chin, high chairs, tiny chairs, wiping crayons off chairs. Day care, nursery school, the first day of first grade, watching that sturdy back trudge down the hall to class.

Camps, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, bullies, buddies, soccer games, Little League, balls caught, dropped, kicked, and lost. Chores, bedtimes, discipline, angry words and loving forgiveness.

The grades tick by, good teachers and bad, science fairs and spelling lists, too much homework or not enough, that great moment when your child knows the answer to a question and you don’t.

Somewhere in there your youngest turns eight or ten and you think, It’s half over, where has the time gone? Middle school, high school, pimples and makeup and dating and fingernails chewed after midnight until you hear a step at the door. Strange music and stranger friends, coltish and gawky, solemn and wise. All the while, the birthdays have ticked by, some with numbers that echo: one, two, six, ten, thirteen, sixteen. Then the eighteenth: what now?

The marathon doesn’t end there, though it becomes more meandering and less consuming. Loans that are really gifts, advice that is rejected loudly and followed quietly, graduations, postcards from Mexico or Maui, the bittersweet joy of watching your child walk down a wedding aisle, a down-payment with your name on it. If your children have kids, your journey takes on a second sort of parenting.

You age and your children don’t seem to. There comes that time when the trajectory of your life is clearly falling back to earth as your children’s ascends. You drift into old age and there is a subtle shift of care and power. And then the final moments come, your veined and aged hands in the strong ones of your children, squeezing, a kiss, a final blessing, a farewell, an ending to the path you walked as a parent, and the beginning of a mysterious new one.

It’s a long, long road. You have to pace yourself down it, not racing like it’s a hundred-yard dash. You have to set aside time to catch your breath – and admire the view! You need good companions, like a loving and supportive partner, and the company of other parents. You need to keep replenishing yourself with good nutrition, exercise, sleep, and enjoyable activities. You need realistic expectations for yourself. And faith and hope that the months and years ahead will give you more chances to get things right.

If you regarded parenthood as a long marathon, spanning twenty years or more, how might you shift the demands you place on yourself? How might you assert yourself to get more help from others? How might you take better care of your body? Or better nourish your inner being? Or simply be nicer to yourself?

When you start taking the long view about the incredible and profound matter of bearing and rearing children, it starts to make more sense, the daily hassles are less irritating, you’re likely to take better care of yourself – and the journey becomes less stressful, more meaningful, and more rewarding!

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.