Love and the Things We Miss

I fell instantly and hopelessly in love with my kids when they were born. That moment when I held each of them right after birth still brings me to tears occasionally (yes, I’ve become a sentimental, old man). There’s so much love and hope in that moment that it is simply overwhelming. I had never truly understood how my parents felt about me until I had my own kids. Then, I knew. The love you feel for your kids is a natural force that rivals gravity in its certainty.

While I think the single greatest thing parents can do for their kids is to show them that they are loved no matter what, that love is also blind. We like to think of our kids as better versions of ourselves, but this hope makes us blind to the reality of what it means to be human. Blind to the struggle that is inevitable in life even for the happiest and most well-balanced among us. Blind to the challenges that await them as they try to figure things out. Inherently, I know this. But knowledge and practice often repel each other.

In Train’s melancholy song “Blind”, the chorus pivots on the line “I don’t mind being blind, if you don’t mind doing time.” The song is about how love can lead you to ignore the obvious despite the repercussions. That’s how I feel about parenting. I’m so caught up in helping my kids be the best version of themselves that I’m blind to the struggles that exist right in front of me. I’m not choosing to ignore them, but I’m certainly sweeping those dust bunnies into a corner so that I can say the floor is essentially clean.

Teenagers are hard-wired to escape the orbit of their parents, to become the center of their own universe. They take a few tentative steps away until it becomes a full-fledged dash. They close you off behind that figurative and literal door. You search for small clues that help you understand them. You ask questions that they don’t want to answer or they answer in some rote, robotic way that seems innocuous and banal. The clues are there if you choose to see them, but sometimes, the most difficult thing to see is right in front of you.

More experienced parents will tell you that they’ll come back around one day. That it will all work out if you’re patient. That may be true, but the journey through the parental equivalent of Siberia seems impossible sometimes, and you wonder if you will come out on the other side intact as a family. It’s like any moment in your life where you experience stress; you wonder if it will ever be the same again. It won’t, but it won’t be like this either. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Parents are hard-coded to worry about their children. My dad once told me the worry never goes away even when your kids are grown and have families of their own. That sounds like some sort of life sentence if you ask me, but it’s one I’m willing to bear because I love these two more than they’ll ever know.

 

One More Time

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.