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The hardest job in the world

Until I became a parent, I didn’t know how challenging it could be. I thought it would be easy, like driving in New York City or getting all my teeth pulled. I thought I would just make the rules — “Don’t forget to tidy your room before going to bed” — and my children would follow them — “Yes, Dad, we’ll do it right away. Would you like us to tidy your room too?”

I didn’t realize how much hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing there would be. I didn’t realize how often I’d hear the question “Do we have to keep doing this?” and how often I’d have to reply “Yes, dear, I know it’s hard, but we can’t give up until the kids are 18.”

Don’t get me wrong. Parenting has brought a lot of joy to my life. One of my greatest joys, for example, is looking at my three children, admiring their sweet, innocent faces, when they’re fast asleep. What immense joy. So much peace and calm in the house. The perfect time to do something romantic with my wife, if only we could find the energy.

When I see teen-agers having babies, I wonder if they know what they’re getting into. Have they really thought it through or are they just hoping that their children, by some miracle, will be mini versions of Mother Teresa? I wish my children would be more like Mother Teresa. I’d like to send them off to Calcutta.

Parenting requires tons of effort, attention and patience, and you can never get too comfortable, too confident, because children keep changing, keep finding new ways to drive you up the wall. If you’re a prospective parent, here’s what you can expect during the first five stages of childhood (which our oldest child, Lekha, has already put us through):

Innocent Infancy: This is the baby stage, also known as the “Will I ever get any sleep again?” stage. Not only do you have to keep waking up at night to take care of your baby’s needs, you have to spend your days either feeding her or changing her diaper. (You’ll have to buy diapers and wipes, as well as formula, cereal and bottled food.) There’ll be a lot of crying in this stage, which is fairly normal, particularly when you’re looking at your bank statement. But try to put things in perspective. In just a few years, you’ll look back and say, “Those were the really cheap days.”

Onerous Ones: She learns how to walk in this stage and is quite good at it, but still expects you to carry her around, because that makes it easy for her to wipe her mouth and nose on your shirt. (That’s one of the downsides of “raising a child.”) She also begins to talk, saying “Mom” or “Dad,” before discovering a far more useful word: “No!” This is her favorite word, at least until she has a sibling and grows to like another word: “Mine!”

Terrible Twos: This is the stage that all parents dread. The baby is now a toddler and has learned to make demands, learned to say “I want.” Whatever another child has, she wants, even if it’s chicken pox. If she doesn’t get what she wants, she throws a tantrum — and sometimes she throws other things too. You’ll be afraid to take her out in public, except perhaps to the zoo, where she might pick up some tips on good behavior from the monkeys.

Therapy-inducing Threes: If you’re relieved when your child turns three, you’re in for a big shock, especially when you see the crayon drawing on your wall and the ink marks on your couch. At this stage, she doesn’t throw tantrums anymore — she just gets you to throw them. Your goals in life have changed by now. Forget about “writing a book” or “starting a business.” All you want to do these days is “remain sane.” That’s a major challenge, as you realize whenever you’re at the dinner table, trying to get your 3-year-old to put something in her mouth, other than the salt shaker.

Frightful Fours: By now, she’s got a lot of toys, perhaps a roomful of them, but that doesn’t stop her from saying “I’m bored” a dozen times a day. You try to tell her about your childhood, how you used to be occupied for hours playing hopscotch with a stone, but she really doesn’t want to hear about the Stone Age. She wants to watch TV all day, but you know what parenting experts say — that it’s not good for children to watch too much TV. So you put a DVD in your computer and let her watch that instead. You’re starting to get good at parenting. At least that’s what you think, until she screams, “I’ve already watched this!”

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