Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Parental Growing Pains

Since some of us are sending our kids off to college around this time of year, I thought it would be a nice idea to have my first blog entry (EVER!) be about what I've learned since my son went off to school.

He left for college a week after his eighteenth birthday. That was almost 2 years ago. I marveled at the ease with which he seamlessly glided through the transition from being a stereotypically clumsy adolescent dependent on us for his meals, clean clothes, money and once in a while for emotional support, to a legal adult directing his own course. I was thrilled for him and couldn’t wait to share his enthusiasm and hear about his classes, his new friends, and his observations and experiences of his new life as a college student. Only it didn’t happen.

We barely heard from him. When I sheepishly gathered the nerve to call him I would hang-up, disappointed by our one-sided conversations and his one word responses to my questions. What had I done wrong? It felt so forced, so unnatural, so awful. Had he been waiting all his life to leave? I was dying for information. My daughters would communicate with him on Facebook or AIM - and I would breathe a sigh of relief, knowing at least that he was safely at his computer somewhere on campus. He would occasionally email my husband, asking for some advice or a quick read of one of his papers. But I got nothing.

I have no memories of how my parents felt after I left home. By the time I left for college, my mother and I were great friends- best friends. I have to believe that she missed me terribly but it never even dawned on me to ask. After all, I was the one leaving, growing up, moving on – it was all about me and my new found independence…my new life. It’s a strange notion, that our first act as a newly knighted adult could be to show concern or compassion for our parents, but instead we choose, subconsciously to behave as a child. Developmentally, I guess it makes sense. It’s like reversion back to the egocentric world of a toddler. Everything revolved around our own wants and immediate needs. But just as a toddler is trying so hard to assert some independence, so is our adult child.

What is it about turning eighteen that suddenly transforms you into an adult? Kids turn eighteen every day – I turned eighteen 30 years ago and I am sure that I must have been waiting with youthful anticipation for my 18th birthday to arrive. But quite honestly, I don’t remember. I became an adult overnight. I could vote, I was legally responsible for myself and back then I could even buy alcohol. It wasn’t all that life-changing. I registered to vote, I opened my own bank account, acted as a responsible citizen, had a glass of wine or beer once in a while and soon graduated from college. The years passed quietly. I got a job after college, got married, went to law school, and had kids. Turning 18 was not a major turning point in my life. In fact, from this vantage point, it was pretty unremarkable. I have to believe that it was no different for my son.

But being a parent of child who has turned eighteen, is very significant. I am astounded that 20 years have passed so swiftly and my son is an adult. Turning eighteen is a really big deal and it was a major turning point - in my life.

So, two years later, this is what I have learned. Patience. I am a different parent to my son than I am to my three daughters. I want to believe that it is not because he is a boy but because he is my first. I have learned by now that patience is the best virtue any parent can have. It serves you best when your kids are young and you are attending mostly to their physical needs and it serves you best when they are older and you are attending mostly to their emotional needs. I learned throughout these times that if I wait long enough, “this too shall pass”. And this too, has passed.

There were times over the past two years, when I would become impatient and believed that I needed to approach this milestone differently - that I had to be proactive about building the foundation for a new kind of relationship with my adult child or I would lose him. But, I decided instead to trust my instincts, and trust my son. He needed his space. We had him for eighteen years and we taught him all we could about growing up to have an inquisitive mind, an open heart and a generous spirit. And lately, I see him coming back in bits and pieces - a gift for my birthday this year, an invitation to come watch him run in a track meet, a trip to our house with his friends for dinner, and an entire car ride home from school last Spring with non-stop conversation, just him and me. It seems like baby steps but that’s okay because he can take all the time he needs. 

I remember when he was turning four, my husband said to him, “You’re growing up too fast, you can’t be turning four already!” and his response was so clear: “You have to change numbers, Dad, that’s the deal”… He was pretty wise, even back then.

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