My son and his dad were out for a beer recently and his dad asked if he was afraid of anything as a child. Caleb replied that one of his childhood fears was not being a competent adult. Just in small, everyday ways -- like he wasn't sure he'd be able to read a map. His father had the same response I did upon hearing this: Why didn't you just ask us to show you how to read a map? He said it seemed silly to ask. Sometimes our fears are half-buried anyway. They live vibrantly inside of us, but they don't seem to relate to the outside world. I've had fears like that -- some of them regard parenting. And wow, loads of other people are parents. Why does it seem so difficult to just ask someone how to read the map? Somehow it's tough to say, "How do I do this?"
Of course, Caleb can indeed read a map, and he's become a competent adult in most regards. That's probably all that can be said for most of us who've aged into adulthood. We have it mostly figured out. Indeed, new skills are always unsteady. He's a competent adult of 22 years -- still new, yet quite able.
I know just how well he can read a map because during the years we've traveled together, he takes the map from my hands more and more frequently. Especially as I fumble for a bit more light, trying to discern subway stops, he quickly reads and refolds the map and tugs my arm saying, "I know where we're going."
I am happy to follow him, and also happy to partake in his various other adult skills. He's a great cook, for example. At daily life, he's doing great. And I can't help but think about how there's nothing more daily than parenting -- at least for the first 15 years. And now that he's older, I'm not sure I know how to read the map.
I've lost my son, the child. And I'm learning to parent my son, the adult. It's a different job, and a sign of success. His adult competence is my good fortune; not every parent is so lucky. Some parents don't really want their children to be fully independent. They love their children's neediness; they want to be the provider, the first person to whom the child turns. I've seen mothers smile when their toddlers cry in the arms of a friend or family member. "Aw, he wants his mommy," people say, and then mom reaches for the child, fulfilled. There can be a pleasure in parental martyrdom, a sense of life fulfilled.
What happens to those parents when the child either pushes them away or needs them differently and they can't adapt? I don't feel bereft; am quite glad that my son is a strong and competent individual. And suddenly, I'm fumbling a bit, slow at discerning the way. When did the instructions become so subtle and the landscape so complex?
This is what we learn through living: how to lose. When we're young, loss seems impossible, and then later like an affront -- how dare something I want be taken from me? As life goes on, loss seems more usual and grace unfurls through practice. It even becomes possible to feel loss as a blessing. It becomes clearer that some of what we lose is best left. We move into the wisdom of paradox and begin to see that losing is often a different type of receiving.
I'll spend many more years writing and reveling in the preciousness of my role as parent, for sure. I've lost my son, the child, and in his maturity, I gain more of my own. Ever grateful for the complexity of this landscape, I'll carry on in the dailyness of it and relish that he can sometimes still travel with me. And yes, I'm happy for him to hold the map.
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