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Amy Ruhlin Headshot

I Am Learning to Be a Parent of Grown Children

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Today my 17-year-old son offered to drive my husband and me to visit our daughter at college. It is only a 90 minute drive from our home. I suggested the trip this morning over breakfast and our son told us that yes, he would like to go, and that we can take his car.

"It will be fun," he says. "We can listen to my music on the way!"

We are delighted by his enthusiasm and thankful that he still wants to spend a weekend afternoon with his parents.

Before we leave I make some coffee for the drive.

"You're bringing that in a travel mug with a lid, right mom?," my son says. "Remember, I have cloth seats."

I can suddenly see our old minivan that I drove when our kids were young. I see myself in the driver's seat calling all the shots. I see my children in the backseat, safely strapped in and enjoying the ride. I see their crayons and coloring books spread out on the seat. I see their juice boxes in the sticky cup holders, their gummy bears on the floor and their goldfish shaped crackers stuffed between the cushions. I want to remind my son of this, but I don't.

"Of course I'll use a travel mug," I say. "Don't worry. I promise I won't spill coffee in your car."

My son makes sure that the lid is secure on my mug and then we all head out the door and down the driveway to his car. My husband calls shotgun and I say fine, I will sit in the back. I decide that I want to be a good passenger.

I am slowly learning that the skills required for being a parent of grown children are quite different from those required to parent younger children. The early days seem easy now: change a diaper, adjust a car seat, hang out at the playground. These days require more: listen closely, instruct less, let go, practice restraint... not my strong suit.

We are on the freeway. My son turns on his stereo and slides in one of his CDs. It is rap or hip-hop; I still can't tell the difference, even though he has explained it to me many times. Either way, I don't like it.

"Will you turn that down?" I ask my son.

He turns the music off.

"It's okay mom. We don't have to listen to music," he says.

We travel along in silence for a while and from the backseat I can hear my husband giving well-intended but unsolicited driving advice. I can see that our son has become a good driver: he is cautious and attentive to the rules of the road. I can see the tension in his shoulders and I see that he is trying to appease his parents.

I see that he has come on this road trip with us in good faith, hoping that we will recognize that he is fully capable of driving the distance and that we will, all of us together, enjoy his music, the ride, the day. I see that my husband and I are blowing it.

"Let's listen to the radio," I say.

"You'd like the radio on?," my son asks.

"Sure I would," I say. "Or we can listen to one of your CDs," I add.

He puts in a CD. Thankfully, it is different from the one that he first played. Actually, this CD sounds beautiful.

I think about all of the CDs we listened to over the years in the minivan: narrated children's storybooks, favorite songs from favorite movies, my old rock- n- roll tunes. Sometimes when I played the music too loud the kids would scream, "Mommy turn it down!" I want to remind my son of this, but I don't.

"This CD is great." I say. "Who is it?"

My son proudly tells me the name of the band and then he and his dad begin a lively conversation about music. I see his shoulders relax and I notice that my husband stops giving driving tips.

I lay my head against the backseat and I look out the window. I see round bales of hay on rolling hills. I see a big half-moon in the late afternoon sky. I have my warm coffee in a clean cup holder and my papers and pens are spread out on the seat. I like it back here.

My son glances over his shoulder at me and with warmth and affection he asks,

"You doing okay back there mom?"

I can see him as a toddler in his car seat. I look in the rear-view mirror of our minivan and I ask,

"You okay back there buddy?"

"Yeah mommy," he says, "I'm good."

I answer my son: "Yeah, I'm great."

Later that evening, we arrive back home and my son pulls his car to a stop in the driveway.

"Hey mom, don't forget to get your coffee cup and all of your papers out of the car," he tells me.

I can see our old minivan again, full of leftover trash. I want to remind him but instead I say,

"I've got everything," and I climb out of the backseat.

"Fun day," he tells me.

"It sure was," I say. "And thanks for driving. I enjoyed the ride."