He walked into the kitchen, and it took a moment for my brain to process that something was different... to understand why his expression reminded me of when he was a baby and why his cheeks looked so pink. And when I did, I teared up. I'm not sure who was more surprised at my reaction, me or him.
My youngest son, the boy who spent his childhood laughing and entertaining our family, who grew more introverted and serious throughout his teenage years -- he shaved off his beard. The beard that that he'd worn for nearly a year and that seemed to age him overnight. And just like that, the boy I remembered was back and standing right in front of me. He'd probably been thinking about shaving it off for weeks, then woke up and did it, without a word to anyone -- his spontaneity being one of the things I love about him and worry about the most. So there he was, waiting for me to notice, and in that instant, he became my baby again, playful and mischievous. My baby who is not really a baby, who's headed off to college in a matter of weeks.
And so I cried.
I know. Buck up, you say, that's how it works. You raise your kids to be independent, then they move away -- head to college, or start a career. I should be happy he's not staying at home, doing nothing. And I am, of course.
But let's be honest -- it's a process, this separation thing. For both the parent and (former) child. It took 18-plus years to get here, and by here I mean to the point in parenting when all the many stages of child-rearing and growing up have been crossed off the list. All the predictable stages, regardless of how individual they may have been: from a child's first laugh, first word, first step... the braces, illnesses, wisdom teeth... the wins and losses, driver's tests, dates... the SATs, the college applications, and straight on through to that final day when they wear their cap and gown.
There's a trunkful of memories. A wealth of nuances, family experiences, words, and laughter. So many stories that are by themselves unremarkable, but together are meaningful and the story of our lives so far. And yes, there are more to come. But not the same kind of stories, in the same house, with the same dynamic -- each of us in our set role, before we make the big shift, to the future us.
So no, I don't want to buck up. Not yet. Give me time. And I'll do the same for you -- all you parents in the same stage of life.
Will you share your favorite memory here with me? With us, with each other? I've posted a picture of one of mine.
I'd love to hear one of yours.
After all, just because they're becoming adults doesn't mean they're not still our babies.
Join me next Monday for another installment of The Pre-Empt Chronicles, as I transition from full house to empty nest.
Gone is the detritus of your children's lives scattered here and there, carelessly flung about and forgotten. Your bathroom towels will stay hung neatly on their bars, the dishes are placed in the dishwasher instead of left to sit next to the sink. Beds remain made, floors remain clean, clothes are neatly put away. Mystery spills vanish, and you never wake up to a mess. Who knew it could be like this?
Some couples decide that it's time to separate and move on, others remember why it was they fell in love in the first place -- or find new reasons and ways to connect to each other. Without your kids, you become each other's only companion when you're at home. It can't be overstated how much of a distraction our kids are while they are growing up. This is probably the most jolting part of the empty nest -- when you look at each other and think, "Oh wow, it's just us now." For better or worse, it will happen.
No longer are you waiting for the sound of a key in the door, or the porch light to be turned off upon your children's safe return from another night out. No longer are you part of the day-to-day ups and downs of your children's lives ... no matter how often they may text/call/email/facebook message/tweet you. Their mental and physical well-being, though still hugely important to you, are their responsibilities now, and you no longer have the minutiae of their daily lives to think about like you did when they lived at home.
If your kids are in college, or even if they're not, you may still be paying for them to eat. But it's nice to go to the grocery store and come home with the things you want, and not have to buy all the things they want, things that you really don't want in your house.
Initially, this may be disturbing or difficult for you to deal with. You may want to do things you've missed -- museums, movies, theater, travel or you may not want to do much of anything at all. Whatever your thing is, there's now time to do it ... a lot of time.
No longer do you have to socialize with other parents because of your children's connections. No more booster club barbecues or committee meetings, making small talk with people you most likely never would have crossed paths with if it weren't for the fact that your children were on the same team/in the same class/part of the same group of friends.
Your children leave home and, for better or worse, they have to grow up, no matter how much help you may be giving them financially OR emotionally. There are just too many daily things to manage, too many random people to deal with, too many bumps and blips that they have to encounter on their own that leads to them, inevitably and sometimes painfully, growing up. It can be liberating when kids take over, driving or planning or explaining -- giving up some authority is in many ways a big relief.
There's nothing quite as wonderful as seeing your kids after weeks or months apart, especially when they first go away to college. Their faces are familiar and beautiful, their smiles just for you, their laundry ready to be washed...it's such a thrill to have them home for holidays, or summers, or a weekend visit. Within minutes of their return, it's as though they never left. You love having them home for a while, but then...
Remember before kids, when you would dream and plan for the rest of your life? Remember when it was wide open, and you had no idea what would happen next? Well, you can do that again, now that you're an empty-nester. No longer do you have to worry about childcare, or kids missing school, or whether they'll like the place you pick to go on vacation -- your time, your future, and your life is yours to create. Always wanted to travel? Now you can. Go back to school? Now's the time. Write a book? Get cracking. You have your life to live, just as they have theirs. Go do it!
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