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Outsiders on the toddler scene Add to ...

It's déjà vu all over again. I've been e-vited to my best friend's home for her son's first birthday party. The house will be bursting with people, many of whom will be under the age of 5.

A rogue wave of flashbacks hits - sudden shrieks, whining voices, the escalation of small-fry activity as the all-sugar buffet kicks in and toys shoot through the air like cannon fire.

Worst of all, I can see the dazed and distracted faces of the assembled adults, working to stay focused on each other while keeping one eye locked on their darling child, ever on the alert for imminent bloodshed or inappropriately filled pants.

I make a face at the e-mail. I love my friend, but honestly. Been there, done that. Ages ago.

My oldest is a graduate student in Amsterdam and is getting married this summer. My youngest is a freshman at a liberal-arts college in Oregon. My nest is officially, internationally, empty and I have to say I've grown to like it that way.

So given that my parental mission has, for all intents and purposes, been accomplished, how is it that I am once again in the position of recreating with toddlers?

My best friend is younger than I am, but not by that much. After a nice long run of adult-only living, many of my near-peers are suddenly embracing parenthood. Having babies late in the game is the new game.

Unfortunately, this means that the same way my husband and I were "outsiders" when we had small children and others didn't, being "empty-nesters" relegates us to the social fringe once again.

I suppose we have slightly more status now than we did years ago, when we brazenly included our loud, havoc-wreaking youngsters in visits to the loft apartments of childless friends. More often, those friends would innocently venture into our home for an hour or two, expressing wonder at our relative calm amid the hurly-burly of small children. We gauged the mounting stress on their faces with amusement, waiting for the inevitable muttered excuse and bolt for the door.

Now knee-deep in their own toddlers, friends view us differently. Still outsiders, we've been upgraded to "those who have survived the battle." More importantly, our children have survived our parenting and have successfully graduated to adult life.

In the eyes of our friends, we've become the keepers of some great but elusive wisdom. They probably don't want to hear that we navigated parenthood by the seat of our pants - attempting to balance (or not) our family life with higher education, careers, relocations and the ever-popular home renovation. (My best piece of advice? If you think raising toddlers is hard, wait until they're teenagers. Which, come to think of it, sounds more like a threat.)

It's hard to say how much our purported wisdom is worth to this new generation of older parents. Things have changed. The selection of child accoutrements alone has morphed and multiplied into a technological wonderland. When I describe the barebones stroller I used and its lack of cup holders or all-terrain capacity, I feel like the ancient guy talking about his five-mile walk to school - in the snow, wearing canvas sneakers.

Despite the advancements in child-rearing gear, parenting may be harder now, especially for these new, older mothers. I had my first child, by enthusiastic choice, at 23, before I'd lived much of my own life. It was the most natural thing in the world and my embrace of motherhood melded easily into my still-evolving identity.

Contrast that to the experience of my friends, who came to motherhood after a long run of independence. These women worked hard for some two decades, educating themselves, establishing successful careers and enjoying a heady freedom and sense of control over their own lives. Let's face it - that's no place to start parenting.

My best friend's experience of motherhood was different than my own. As much as she had deeply desired children, she struggled with the necessary selflessness and lack of control that came with getting her very own bundle of joy.

She lamented the apparent loss of her own identity and fought to eke out time for herself. It's a balance she strikes most of the time now and I admire her for that, especially since it turns out I'm skewed too far the other way. Unwinding my needs from the needs of my children is an arduous, time-consuming but necessary task at this point in my life. My friend and I enjoy the irony that our lives have seemingly reversed - hers filled with (filled) diapers, mine suddenly replete with personal freedoms.

I reply to her birthday e-vite in the affirmative. Bring on the legions of toddlers - I am ready. I have done battle and lived to tell the tale.

The truth is children are a joy, those years were golden and my reluctance to return there is a reflection of how much I miss my own kids. Besides, I have grandmothering to practise for. Do they make drum sets for one-year-olds?

Joan Powell lives in North Vancouver, B.C.

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