How Old is the Parent?

How old is your baby? Musings on new parenthood

New parents are often asked, “How old is your baby?

It’s a sweetly intentioned question and one we can usually answer easily (depending on our current level of sleep deprivation!). An equally pertinent question is, “How old is the parent?”

For some reason, we think that upon the arrival of our child, we somehow become fully-formed parents even if our baby is a newborn. Parenthood grows, like the development of a child, through phases and stages of change. When your child is a newborn human being, are you a newly born parent–exploring the new world, seeing it for the first time through parent-eyes. It makes sense to think of new parents as newborns. They need much of the same care and attention a newborn baby needs–warmth, attention, food, sleep, and total acceptance that they are not yet crawling let alone walking! We would never think to yell at a newborn for not knowing how to crawl. “Why are you just lying there! How stupid that you don’t crawl and move around already!” And yet, we can berate ourselves viciously in the midst of our innocence as new parents.

What if instead of expecting ourselves to arrive as fully-formed parents, we looked on with the wonder of witnessing something completely new finding its way in the world? Imagine watching ourselves unfold into parenthood with the curiosity and awe we feel as our children learn new skills for the first time.

Our development continues far beyond the newborn phase. My own children are teenagers and my experience of myself as a parent is far from new. Even still, each new phase of parenthood is a developmental milestone for the parent. This is my first time as a parent of a child applying to college. This is my first experience of having two kids in high school with all its changes and unique challenges. These are my current developmental phases of parenthood. They are new and unfamiliar. I am no longer a newborn parent, as my identity as a mother feels well established. But each new phase still brings with it a period of adjustment, learning, and stretch…as it does for my kids.

One of the big differences between the developmental phase of newborn parenthood and older milestone crossings is communication. At this point, with teenagers, I can and do verbalize the stretch as I feel it. I often say to my kids, “This is new for me. I’m going to have to take a bit to figure out how I feel about it and what I want to do.” They don’t have to accept that and sometimes push against my request for patience. That’s sort of their job, to test and push my boundaries…it’s a developmental phase! Asking for time and verbalizing my need to let the change, stretch, or phase settle a bit for me is a practice I’ve worked on over my nearly 18 years of being a parent.

This practice can start as a new parent. Try verbalizing to your non-verbal baby what you need, or maybe just speak inside your own head, either will work. For example, if your baby is crying and you don’t know what to do say, “I hear you are upset and I’m having a tough time figuring out what you need. Give me a minute to see if I can figure it out.” Regardless of whether you say it out loud or inside your own head, it is a practice to ask for and take the necessary time to step across a developmental threshold in your own parenting journey. You aren’t really asking your baby for this space and time. You are asking yourself to be patient with yourself. You are reminding yourself that you are facing something new and unfamiliar. You are not expected to know how to handle every situation the first time you face it or even the tenth! When learning to walk, toddlers fall down a LOT. And, they keep trying…they pick themselves up and try again…over and over and over again.

Here’s to cheering ourselves on as we learn to walk as new parents. We will learn how. Then we’ll move on to running, climbing, jumping, and swimming.

The phases continue. Patience and resilience are required. If you don’t already have them in spades, parenthood is a crash course in both!

About Dr. Britta Bushnell

is a writer, teacher, storyteller, and mentor who blends her eclectic training, years of experience, and areas of study into a unique offering for individuals, couples, professionals, and groups. Britta is currently deep at work writing her forthcoming book, Transformed by Birth: Illuminating cultural ideals to enhance the experience of childbirth.