The Parent’s Question – But What About Me? Part II
Healthy children grow most easily in the surroundings of a healthy family. And healthy parents are necessary for the overall health of the family unit. As has been stated many times on these pages, parenting is probably one of the most significant roles one can fulfill in life. At the same time, it can be one of the most challenging undertakings possible. Until someone has a child, it is almost impossible to anticipate what it will be like, what the rewards and sacrifices will be. The joys are colossal, and the sacrifices can be very large as well. Priorities and values can change. And the new terrain we are walking upon can be quite uneven.
One hard part for parents is seeing how their individual life paths are shifting. This can be especially challenging for the parent giving the primary care. Stepping away from outside work; being at home more with domestic responsibilities; holding a quieter rhythm to support the young child’s need for security and calm; and having less frequent adult contact can cause parents to feel isolated. If career responsibilities continue and the child needs care from another provider, other stresses and emotional conflicts may arise. Frustration can be the next step along, with questioning about the fairness of life. “What about me? Where did my life go? This is too hard. Who am I now?” These are natural and normal questions that arise in the lives of every human being. There is nothing negative or selfish in asking such questions or feeling emotionally conflicted. What we thought we had figured out about life changes when children come. What we used to feel certain about becomes wobbly. Children call upon us to grow and experience ourselves in a new way. Our new parenting life proposes that a human life is a continual, creative growing process that never stops, but just gets more subtle.
In a previous column (LILIPOH, Spring 2017), we explored an idea for finding a calm, centered place in heart and mind when these questions rattle us. It seems that everyone else gets care except ourselves. A suggestion for reclaiming our calm perspective was to work with seven breaths. Since antiquity, the number seven has repeatedly emerged as a special number because it occurs in so many ways. We always have seven days in the week. This is something we can count on; it never changes. Seven colors span the rainbow, a wonder and delight to the eye that signals promise and hope.
Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, made a remarkable observation in his first published lecture about the growing child in 1907.  He observed that the human being grows in cycles of seven years. The first span is from birth to the child’s seventh year. At this time there are changes that we can see outwardly in physical appearance: growth, change of teeth, and change in how the child perceives and thinks about the world. Whether a child is ready to begin the grade school years (a big transition in a child’s life) is determined in large part by observing these changes in the child. Each of these markers shows that a phase of growth and development is completed and a transition is occurring. The child is ready to move on to the next phase. Ages seven to fourteen mark the second cycle. The grade school years are the heart of childhood. We see children grow and change through fairly predictable and harmonious steps up until about the age of 14 when adolescence really declares itself. Then we see new physical maturation, new attitudes, and changes in thinking and feeling quite different from what we saw in the earlier grade school years. We can confirm that ages 14 – 21 form a third distinct phase. And tradition has held for generations that one is considered a responsible adult upon achieving age 21. Then the world around us says, “Okay, you’re finished. Go live a successful life,” as though we now have everything we need to answer all of life’s questions that lie ahead.
But Rudolf Steiner did not stop at age 21. He went on to point out that these seven-year rhythms continue for the whole of life. Each period has its gesture, mood, and theme, which are surprisingly consistent through human beings’ lives. Cultural values and social norms will influence how a person is expected (and allowed) to navigate these various passages. But the existential questions of “Who am I? What is going on in my life? Where is it going?” will come to every adult. There is a heightened consciousness of “self” in western societies and an expectation that we will all be successful and happy if we just do it right. If we are not feeling successful and happy, we are saddled with the burden of thinking that we are doing it wrong. Steiner’s characterizations of the seven-year cycles for adults as well as for children can be useful as a map offering guide posts to help us mark our passage along this human developmental path.
How is this relevant for ourselves as parents? We have two biographies developing at the same time. One of our biographies is that of becoming a parent. Our infants have physical birth, and we are newly birthed as parents at the same time. We are as inexperienced in our new roles as the babies are in living in their physical bodies. Both baby and parents have a steep learning curve to follow. The second biography is that of our individual selves. “Where am I in my developmental cycles? What life questions are coming toward me in correspondence with my age?” Sometimes the phases of these two developmental biographies are in rhythmic harmony. Sometimes they can be very out of sync, and can cause seemingly inexplicable mental and emotional confusion. Knowing at least a little bit about the seven-year cycle in which we find ourselves at a given moment can give us a different perspective to consider and allow us some insight and calm, reassuring us that we are not doing it wrong. We are just experiencing the opportunities and questions that come toward us as part of living a human life. These themes come uninvited to everyone and give us continued opportunities for insight, transformation, and refinement of our beinghood.
So what are these themes and gestures? What follows as description is a tiny sketch of the mood and question of each period. 
Once we have reached age 21, we usually have opportunity for more independence and freedom in our choices of what we will do next. The period from 21 – 28 is characterized as “the age of adventure” with the “quest for personal experience.” It is a time for exploring the world and relationships. Discovery of the world is the goal. We begin to experience our own “I” in a more mature and independent way.
Ages 28 – 35 often find young adults settling into work or profession, and into long-term relationships. This is an “age of working over experience.” 
The quest is to understand what we have experienced in the previous cycle. This is a time of creating stability and a life construct. Individuals can experience a crisis at around 28. Questions arise: “Am I ready and willing to step toward a more settled future or is the draw of adventure still strong? Does a more settled life look inviting as a chance to digest experiences and to clarify and distill a life plan? Or does the future look dry and humdrum?”
The phase from 35 – 42 takes on a more somber tone. Often couples have families by this time. People are more settled into jobs. Life can become more routine. This can be positive in providing stability and rhythm, which are reassuring and make life easier. We have had adventurous years and may not feel the need or desire to create everything newly “from scratch” all the time. On the other hand, the settling into a more rhythmic routine can feel like being covered by a heavy gray blanket. The existential questions are: “Have I created enough substance in my inner life to sustain my enthusiasm for the life I have? Or do the years ahead look like a desert? What will keep me going?” This time can invite exploration within oneself. It can also be an age of loneliness if the door to deep inner reflection is opened up.
We have all heard about the dangerous 40s. Each of the seven-year cycles is traditionally associated with a planetary sign. These years are accompanied by the sign of Mars, the god of war and conflict. Ummm. Interesting, as the phrase midlife crisis is well known to us all. This is a time of searching for truth and authenticity, and things from the past (ideas, work, identities, and relationships) may be thrown off. It can be a time of much change. A cliché image for this period is that of buying the longed-for red sports car. Will that be our vehicle? Or maybe a hybrid car with economical mileage but not much flash? Or maybe a bulldozer?
There is also another interesting aspect of 42 – 49. If we draw a diagram of the seven-year cycles as a U-shaped curve with 0 – 28 years on the descending arm of the curve, 21 – 42 resting in the bow-curve at the bottom, and 42 – 63 on the ascending upward side, the sections of 14 – 21 and 42 – 49 will stand right across from each other. They mirror each other, so to speak. It is commonly seen that experiences from the teen years (both those finished, and those left incomplete and longing for resolution) will reflect into this period of the 40s. This can offer opportunity to work through unfinished business from the adolescent years but now with the benefit of having more life experience. It is likewise a time for the hard-won growth of the adolescent years to glow into the 40s and give us encouragement to keep going.
Everyone’s experience through these times is individual. There is no inevitability that it will be turbulent or dramatic, though there is always some serious considering. If there are not major obstacles on the outside, there is often quiet, inner work and questioning to be undertaken. Passing beyond 49 can feel like a victory. Phew! Made it!
The step into the 50s offers a new breath. At age 50, individuals often encounter a calm moment of refocusing. We realize that the years of life are not endless. A new question comes. “What is really important to me in my future years? Where do I want to focus my energies?” This is a more expansive period and can be a release from the somber and serious, self-directed inner work of the previous two cycles. One can turn from biographical self-absorption out toward the world. The years 49 – 56 are characterized as a creative time, a time to seek beauty and develop an art of living that satisfies ourselves and serves and inspires others.
The years from 56 – 63 are the last “scripted” phase. A lot of growing, transforming, and developing within ourselves has been accomplished. So much concern with oneself as a focus begins to relax. This is often a time when we can feel confident and secure in reaching out into community and give through service to the world. It can become a time of reverence, and a more universal type of love begins to unfold. It is a time to realize goodness with others.
After 63, what is next? After 63 the human being’s destiny has run its course. The individual is free, is “a child of the gods.” Now this can sound very attractive. We have been striving to become free all these years. But now there is no map. The road is open and we are the wanderers charting our own course. We are still searching for our true home, but possess experiences and wisdom the years of life have offered us so we can walk forward with more confidence to greet what lies ahead.
Going back to our consideration of parenting, we have mostly been considering the questions and calls for adjustments that confront parents of young children. Where we are in our individual biographical journey when we become parents will certainly affect our orientation. How we respond to our partners, children, and friends will all be affected by where we are on the seven-year paths.
Children also grow up and move themselves into new and different seven-year phases that take on new gestures and themes. Sometimes the phases of parent and child will move along in harmony. And sometimes they will be at odds and clash with each other like angry waves in a turbulent sea. Pausing to objectively see where each of us is in our cycles may provide insight that otherwise eludes us. For example, a parent and child may be confronting the same kinds of questions on different levels, such as the adolescent in the 14-21 range with a parent who is dealing with similar life and identity questions in the 40s. Realizing that the personal scripts are unfolding themselves out of biographical rhythms that hum along on their own can shine a new light. We are each engaging with life questions that are too similar for comfort. There is no deliberate ill will. Each of us is taking new and unfamiliar steps on the biographical path.
Mismatch in rhythms can happen not only with our children. It can happen with other family members, such as our partner. If we had some appreciation of these developmental cycles, perhaps more relationships would survive through challenging moments. Some conflicts are not resolvable. But many may be moments of biography that will pass if given enough tolerance and time. We say of our children, “They are just going through a phase.” This can be true of adults as well.
These realizations can give us understanding of puzzling and distressing moments when we are at odds with one another and within ourselves. Life questions come whether we like them or not. They will come without conscious invitation. We can try to avoid them—usually not successfully. These questions are there for a purpose, to help us strive to become the most fully developed human beings we can be. Considering these biographical rhythms as a backdrop to our lives can help us see that we are not doing it wrong. We are just “doing” as we strive to “be” and “become.”
1. Rudolf Steiner, “The Education of the Child in the Light of Spiritual Science,” in The Education of the Child (Great Barrington, MA: Steinerbooks, 1996).
2. There are many excellent books written on the subject of human biography. Readers are encouraged to do further reading if these thoughts tantalize you. SteinerBooks carries many volumes on this subject. HYPERLINK “http://www.steinerbooks.com” www.steinerbooks.com These are found on their webpage under the category “Biography.
George and Gisela O’Neill, The Human Life (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Mercury Press, 1990).