Kids don't come with instructions, yet we figure out pretty quickly how to nurture, teach, and protect them. I just didn't expect that we had only 17 years and 364 days to accomplish everything we set out to do, before the start of a whole new ballgame.
My youngest son just turned 18. According to the law, he's now (mostly) a man. I'd forgotten what legal changes ensue when they are 18 -- and how those changes do, and logically should, change the way we approach parenting and our kids approach responsibility. I say logically because anyone who's ever had a child, who's ever loved a child, knows you can't raise them by logic alone. Turning 18 is both an emotional and legal milestone. And just as it was when they first came into this world, there are no instructions about how to parent henceforth.
Yes, I know, I've been prepping my child all along for his newfound adulthood. Still, reality has a funny way of creeping up on you. Part of me thought we'd get a package in the mail -- an information kit from the government -- a sort of What You Need to Know About Turning 18 type of thing. It's not a bad idea, though admittedly, a tad creepy. When my grandmother turned 100, my family got a letter from the President. Maybe I'm a bit paranoid, but I still think that's weird.
In the absence of government mail, I did some research, which I followed with ibuprofen for the ensuing headache, and eight episodes of The Big Bang Theory, season three, because I needed to laugh again.
Here's what I learned:
Although an 18-year-old can't drink legally (hence the mostly of the "mostly a man" comment above), he can vote, fight for his country, serve on a jury, buy a house, get married, and get arrested.
I am no longer the legal representative for his health, unless he grants me permission. I can, however, keep him on my health plan, until he's 26.
I cannot, without his consent: discuss his credit card bill with the bank, even though I am his co-signer (and even though he doesn't have one yet); or discuss his tuition bill with his college, even though I am mostly paying for school; or view his grades, even though, again, I am mostly paying for school.
In my new role, I am a consultant on call, who still supports him financially and makes his dinner. Okay, I didn't find that last part online, but let's be honest -- that's the way it is. At least until he starts college.
Of course, he still acts like a teenager: throws his laundry on the floor, waits weeks to wash his linens, has mood swings, negotiates curfews (I no longer have legal control, but he knows who pays his car insurance) and stays up too late doing homework that he should have completed earlier -- but fell asleep instead.
And I love him anyway.
Let's face it, the years between 18 and 21 are jam-packed with lessons that go far beyond what a parent can offer. And mistakes will be made. I should know, I made plenty. Yet there are very few tools out there to help parents navigate their way through these years, as they transition, along with their kids, to their new roles and responsibilities.
So besides being armed with facts, I'm trying a new approach to help combat the emotional response I get every time I look into his baby blues. We'll see how it works:
- Stand back and see him as an adult.
- Talk to him as if he is an adult.
- Ask How can I help? instead of telling him what to do.
- Let go of any pre-conceived notions about the choices I think he'll make based on his childhood.
- Get busier with my own life so I don't focus on the inevitable screw-ups quite as much.
- And most of all, remember that I'm still in the game. I just moved from pitcher to catcher -- he's the one who's up to bat.
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!
Follow Melissa T. Shultz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MelissaTShultz