The hardest part of being a parent is not at all what you think it will be when you are first handed your tiny packet of newborn at the hospital, when you are instructed how to wrap it like a burrito, how to wash and feed it, then sent on your merry way with samples of Enfamil and Pampers and Dreft and diaper rash cream. You assume those first weeks and months of severe sleep deprivation, trying desperately to soothe the five-hour nightly screechfest, and cleaning mucky green infant poo that seems to come every few minutes from some cruel teeny intestinal swamp are the toughest things. You are thinking, hey, you get those out of the way, and it’s pretty smooth sailing, because you love your child, your child loves you, and everything will be groovy.

Stupid new parents.

Oh, trust me…the days of poo and screech and baggy-eyed exhaustion seem rather doable in comparison to what’s coming. After all, you can definitely put on a fresh diaper, catch up with naps (or, like me, develop a caffeine habit), and babies all do stop howling at some point. You can pick up a baby and rock and sing to them, you can make them laugh and smile by making funny sounds, and you can give them a new toy and they will be happy as a little clam. Doable.

No, the hardest part of being a parent is watching them grow up and do dumb stuff and get hurt and suffer, even if you tried to give them a glimpse into the Crystal Ball of Experience, tried to get them to understand the big picture, the longview, and all the rest of those boring things. Because they haven’t yet earned the experience like you did, they sometimes just don’t do the right things, and you are left with cleaning up a mess in sad silence, or flinging “I told you so!” at them in righteous anger and frustration. There sometimes is very little you can do. They have to make their own ways, and that includes mistakes that seem so glaringly obvious and avoidable to you…because you’ve already made them and moved on. You are left to navigate new waters in how you deal with your child and how you cope with your own feelings. And if you get it wrong, it makes everything worse.

Imagine a nurse telling you that as she handed you the hospital goody bag and your maternity discharge papers…“The umbilical cord stump will fall off in 10-14 days, and your heart might ache for several years. You can treat only one of these with an alcohol-soaked swab. Sign here please.” Nurses might know it, as baby after baby leaves the hospital with a tiny knit cap and a thrilled and scared new parent. They can’t tell you so.

But if you can, look and listen to the generation ahead of you. Most of those parents, now grandparents with their children all grown, will tell you that yes, those times were very hard and they worried like you do now, but that in the end, it all worked out pretty well.  Things may not have turned out exactly the way they wished for their kids, but they still love them just as much and are proud of the adults they became. It takes time and patience. And, if you are like me and from the Instant! Generation, time and patience are BORRRR-INNNG. There is no TANG for human development. I think.

No more than the nurse or your mom or my mom or I can tell you all about the hardest part of being a parent if you haven’t arrived there yet, I can’t really make a new parent understand the best part. It’s not that first baby smile, given right to you. It’s not the pride you see in them learning to walk, ride a bike, read, make friends. It’s not getting to play Hot Wheels or Legos or Barbies again. It’s not even all the goofy stuff they say and do that keeps you laughing and smiling, even on the days when you don’t much feel like laughing or smiling. I can’t tell you, because there aren’t really the right words to capture just how very very much you will love them, how that fills your heart. I won’t even try. But I can tell you that you might love them the most right when instead of telling them, “I told you so,” you just hug them, and say nothing at all.