The Happy Middle Years

The Happy Middle Years

By Rachel Pieh Jones

the happy middle1For my children, the ages 6-12 have been the ages of ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet.’ No longer in diapers, not yet smoking pot. No longer waking up all night, not yet staying out all night. No longer fed from the breast, not yet developing breasts or obsessed with breasts, depending. No longer sitting backwards in a hard plastic seat beneath layers of car seat buckles, not yet behind the wheel.

No longer fighting with me over the biggest brownie (I totally won that battle), not yet fighting to wear the smallest swimsuit. No longer needing me to read homework instructions, not yet needing me to remind them that these grades count toward something more than five extra minutes at recess.

I know the middle years aren’t like this for every family or every kid, but so far, for my youngest, Lucy and I, these feel like our golden years. She is witty and strong, creative and self-entertaining. She is helpful and curious and generally a joy to spend time with.

This feels peaceful. And, this feels dangerous, slippery.

Now that Lucy is eight years old I feel like I am free. After years of focusing primarily on family, I can develop more outside interests, focus on my writing, help coach a running team. I have the mental capacity for conversations about politics and social issues instead of sleep schedules, to read books about genocide instead of about potty training.

I sense the dangerous possibility of letting these years slip past and of letting my happy middle-aged daughter slide from between my arms while I am finishing an essay and she is practicing piano on her own or making brownies on her own (having kicked me out of the kitchen and demanding I not intervene no matter what).

If we begin to go our separate ways now, if I sidestep out of her orbit because I am no longer required for basic survival and functioning or bottom-wiping, if she slides away as I become addicted to hours of quiet writing, and if I neglect to be intentional because she isn’t rocking my world with the wrong friends, bad grades, dangerous driving, or inappropriate clothing, what will happen during the next season?

What a silly fear, as though I feel required to be anxious about something. Since Lucy is thriving and I can’t be anxious about the present, why not project fear into the future?

I don’t want to live in this happy middle season with this unnecessary anxiety, dreading a dire future of my own creation and afraid to enjoy a satisfying time of life. I also want to take advantage of the relative ease now to invest in this almost-tween, to build on the foundation of the early years and to create scaffolding to guide her into the tumultuous teen years.

I Googled, “books parenting ages 0-5” and got 11,400,00 results. I Googled “books parenting ages 13-18” and got 5,750,00 results. I Googled “books parenting ages 6-12” and got 1,300,00 results. Loads of advice on getting started parenting and on finishing up before launching our kids into the scary beautiful world. Not nearly as much about what to do in between.

Once our children know how to tie their own shoes, read chapter books, fix their own breakfast, and self-soothe to sleep, the parenting section of Barnes and Noble or Amazon would have parents think our job is done. At least for the next six years, we can go into coasting mode.

We are still cool, we are still in control. We are still bigger and stronger and presumably wiser but we are on the verge of losing all these advantages. This is precisely why I cannot settle into coasting mode. These might be the happy middle years for (some) kids but they are also foundational and the habits, relationships, and attitudes cultivated now are what they will carry with them into and beyond the teenage years, even if those values appear to remain dormant or to disappear entirely for a season.

These are prime years to instill in Lucy a love of literature, a global worldview, a secure spiritual foundation. We talk about bodies and healthy attitudes toward food and exercise, respect for the opposite gender. We laugh really hard and ask questions we don’t know the answers to, then search out those answers. We take risks and practice courage.

I will not worry about the future, this now is when she is eight and this here is where we will learn and love and create. Instead of living afraid that the peace is precarious, I’m learning to embrace these happy middle years with intention.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

Purchase This is Childhood, a book and journal about ages 1 -10 of childhood.