Nothing prepares you for parenthood. No matter how many books you read or how many parents you talk to, nothing really preps you for what is to come. It’s like being thrown into Lake Michigan in the early spring. Once you get over the initial shock of the icy, cold water, you either sink or swim for your life. The good news is that a lot of what it takes to be a parent comes naturally once you adjust to the fact that you’re responsible for another person’s life, one you happened to create, and the inevitable ups and downs come and go as your child rolls through the phases of childhood.
After having been a father for over 13 years, I’m convinced that the hardest part of being a parent isn’t the long, sleepless, stressful nights of the baby phase or the teetering-on-the-edge of danger toddler years, but the simple act of letting go. I believe this to be true not because it’s one dramatic moment that occurs when you drop your young adult off at college, but because letting go happens much sooner than we all would like to admit, and it happens gradually like the slow drip-drip of Chinese water torture.
Once a child reaches nine or ten years old, your ability to inculcate them with your values and your own voice begins a rapid decline. It is then that they start to form their own view of themselves and start the proverbial search for who they are. By the time they reach the teenage years, they are seemingly in full revolt often trying things that are a direct conflict to your own ideals. This is a natural and necessary phase that often doesn’t go well. My wife and I often say we have to pick our battles with the kids. That’s especially true with teenagers. I just hope we can abide by that maxim.
After all the fretful years of coaxing your kids from utter helplessness to independence, it’s disappointing that they push away just when they become more interesting. Everyone who has been through this tells me that they’ll come back around. In their early 20s. That’s a long time to wander in the desert of parenthood, but time seems to accelerate once you become a parent. I look back over the years since my kids were born, and I wonder how so much time has passed so quickly. One moment I’m holding my newborn daughter, and in the next, she’s a full-grown young woman who is almost as tall as me. What the hell?
To a parent, time is like an avalanche that throttles you down the mountain at hyper-speed. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, but you can take your moments. Four years ago I took the kids on individual trips to somewhere they wanted to go. Just the two of us. My daughter wanted to go to California, so we went to L.A. and toured around. My son wanted to go to the desert to look for lizards, so I took him to Arizona. That one-on-one time and those moments together probably meant more to me than they did to them. They had fun for sure, but to spend that time with them, to appreciate them as individuals outside the spotlight of our broader family, that was something special.
Obviously, they are older now. They’d rather spend time texting their friends or playing games with them on Xbox or on their phones than spend any amount of forced time with their parents. Back when they were toddlers, I’d come home from work and they’d run to the door to greet me, hanging onto me like I was Gulliver on Lilliput. No matter how exhausted I was when I returned home from a long day of work, I’d immediately perk up when I saw those smiling faces at the door each night. Today is remarkably different. Forget smiles and giddy excitement. If they’re even around the door when I come home, I’m lucky to get a grunt of acknowledgement. Their noses are likely glued to the assortment of screens that they have. Most likely, they are ensconced in their rooms, doors shut, frittering away their time on homework or whatever strikes their fancy.
Despite the droll, mopey aura that has overtaken my once sweet, little kids, I’m not ready to let them sail off toward adulthood undisturbed. I accept the fact that I have to let go, and I will try to do it gracefully, but there are no promises. While they’d rather spend their summer vacation playing with their friends, I decided a while ago that I want to do the individual trips again. One more time.
In a few short years, they’ll be driving and will have summer jobs, and before that they’ll become so engaged with activities that any free time they have will be consumed by them. Then, there’s the matter of how uncool it is for teenagers to hang out with their parents (I was there once and I remember it well). Before that happens, I want another moment with them, so this summer we’ll head out to a destination of their own choosing. My daughter and I will head to Cedar Point because we discovered that we both love the thrill of roller coasters back on that California trip a few years ago. My son and I will head to New York City because he wants to see it for himself. It’ll be fun, one last hurrah before they scurry off and play with the cool kids.