SHIFT: Is this the hardest time to be a parent?

Between managing the impact of a pandemic and the guiding them through natural rites of passage, nurturing our offspring feels like walking up an impossibly steep hill.

Lisa Machado 6 minute read November 15, 2021

It doesn't seem to matter how old your kids are, the ability to parent proficiently is being tested. GETTY

“Remember when all we had to worry about was lice?”

This from a woman I have known since my daughter met her son in kindergarten, twelve years ago. We were debating whether or not this is the absolute most difficult time to be a parent.

For sure, the degree of awfulness that is your parenting experience can be measured on a day-to-day basis. According to one survey, for parents with young children, dinner, baths and bedtime push stress levels to the max. But frankly, since the pandemic began, it seems that the list of the ways our ability to parent proficiently is tested has grown exponentially — and it doesn’t matter how old your kids are.

Between the kindergarten-aged brother and sister that live down the street who have developed compulsive hand-washing behaviours, a work colleague’s gifted teenaged son who blames online school for losing his lifelong passion for law and is now working at a local hardware store, and the 80-something guy I met yesterday in the grocery store who suspects his fifty-year-old recently divorced daughter is using drugs to ease the sting of physical distancing, nurturing our offspring these days is feeling a little like walking up an impossibly steep hill.

My friend reminded me of when our kids’ school had an explosion of lice years ago. Even though I was intently spraying my daughter’s and son’s hair with water mixed with tea tree oil every morning — something that apparently kept hair bugs away — there came that dreaded moment when I spotted a little nit, an egg, an almost-lice, on one of my daughter’s shiny curls.

Thank goodness for The Lice Squad, a local mom-run company that specializes in, yup, getting rid of lice. I made an early — 7 a.m. — appointment for the next day, which also happened to be class photo day for both kids.

It wasn’t long after I had knocked on the worn white windowless door with no name — “we keep things on the down low,” the woman had told me on the phone, “you know, for privacy” — that I began to get the feeling that I hadn’t quite thought things through.

The first clue was when the woman diligently working her way through my daughter’s mound of thick hair with a fine-toothed comb reacted with a small gasp when I mentioned we had to be back at school in time for pictures. She peered at me through thick plastic safety goggles with yellow rims — I guessed to protect her eyes from any jumpers — as she quietly mentioned with a lot of eyebrow raising and exaggerated winking that she had to put a “special” shampoo in my daughter’s hair which might make it “superhero shiny.” I could see my daughter smile uncertainly, her little lips barely visible beneath the thick strands of hair that had been combed down over her face.

“No probs,” I said. “We can handle special and shiny.”

What she really meant was oily and stinky, except we didn’t know that yet.

As she pulled my daughter’s hair into a saucy ponytail with what seemed like a lot of effort — “This will be better for pictures,” she said — my son settled into the chair next to her. He had been waiting patiently, passing the time studying a huge display on the wall of the life stages of a louse — from an egg to larvae to an adult, the end product was leggy and larger than my hand.

“I hope she got those nasty guys out of Grace’s hair,” he whispered to me urgently, his eyes wide. Even though I hadn’t found any nits in his hair, it was recommended that he be checked too. I took a moment to consider Grace’s ponytail, which looked frozen in time — clumped together with the special shampoo — and how it would translate on my son’s shorter black hair. It was obvious that the woman was also mulling it over. Hesitating with the comb in mid-air, she inhaled. “Pictures, eh?” she said, as she looked at me briefly, and then soldiered on. Both he and I were relieved when no creepy crawlies were reported and we headed out — hard, smelly hair and all.

Despite the immoveable hair, there was comfort in the fact that both kids were bug-free. And it was a bonus that we arrived at school just minutes after the bell — no chance of missing photos. Until we spotted my son’s class leaving the school gym where the photographer had just snapped the class picture. As my son burst into tears, his teacher came over and took his hand — her eyes pausing on his shiny hair for a moment — and explained that she would try to reschedule.

Later that day, I got an email from her saying that while they were unable to redo the class shot, the photographer “successfully” photoshopped my son in: “Right in the front row!!” she wrote, adding a colon-and–bracket smiley face. Whew. I felt like I dodged a bullet.

But when he brought home the open envelope with the finished product from school a week later and pointed out that he was much taller than everyone else — it wasn’t just his big hair — and I noticed that his white sneakers weren’t touching the floor, well, it felt like a really hard time to be a parent.

“Remember how stressed you were?” my friend said, pursing her lips to stop herself from laughing hysterically.

I do remember. But these days, worrying about how to convince my self-conscious nine-year-old that he didn’t look like an inflated floating version of himself with plastic hair; that anyone who makes fun isn’t a real friend; and besides, who needs friends like that anyway, is nothing — small potatoes, as my dad used to say.

Because just last week, the now 14-year-old went to his first real party. I did my due diligence – I made sure there would be a parent home, negotiated a fair curfew and planned a safe way home. But these days, that’s not enough. The conversation also included light, but clear, reminders of our rules around drinking and drugs (illegal and never), how to say no to someone who offers either or both, how to help a friend who gets into trouble, consent (no means no, dude), how to walk away from fights, and the last, and most important one, that he could count on us to pick him and his friends up at any time, no questions asked.

Admittedly, it felt a little helicopter parent-ish, and there were many eye-rolls and sighs and uncomfortable chuckles. But when he breezed in later that night, giving me a kiss and casually sharing details of the night, which included flowing alcohol, intoxicated teens, widely available weed and other drugs, and how a girl needed to be walked home to make sure she made it home safe, I felt disheartened. Between trying to buffer the impact of COVID for our children and guiding them through the usual rites of passage in life, I couldn’t help but think how now is an exceptionally hard time to be a parent.

“It is a hard time, man,” my friend said, taking a swig of wine from her water bottle. “It’s like … the whole lice thing on steroids.”

Except there’s no nameless door without a window to walk through where a woman with plastic goggles is going to make it all better.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Minus the big hair and gross bugs, of course.

This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Click here to subscribe.