By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
All week, I watched them: parents shepherding their children along to whatever comes next.
School was back in session and new batches of students arrived in every grade-level. Those who moved to different buildings — the baby intermediate students, uncertain middle schoolers, terrified freshmen— left behind equally traumatized parents.
Not everyone resisted the transitions. My neighbor down the street, on the sidewalk in the early morning sunlight, looked at home in the world as he escorted his daughters to school. The sisters he and his wife fostered triple-skipped ahead of him. They’re happy now.
Another neighbor described on Facebook how she scrambled to cook the oatmeal and — a half-day later — prep afterschool snacks for her fledgling first-grader. This little girl comes home hungry and delighted every day, and her mother marvels. They really do grow fast, our children.
I felt it Saturday when our grandson turned 1, joyously destructive to the smash cake offered by his excellent parents. Not so many years ago, his father gazed in wonder at a star-frosted birthday cake, tore open packages of LEGO blocks, brandished a plastic sword and gleamed with pleasure that his day had arrived. He was six.
I felt it again on Wednesday when my son turned 18. The baby who tested me with false labor twice, then turned out to be the sort of boy who wanted to see the sun rise every morning and expected garden seeds to germinate and emerge overnight, is now a young man.
Time passes, sometimes like water flows and sometimes like trees grow, and sometimes like less poetic things: unexpectedly awkward, often splintery. As my children move through adolescence, the grand, carefully planned birthdays slowly eroded.
When AJ turned seven, we celebrated with a knights and castles theme. I stuffed refrigerator boxes into my station wagon and hauled them home, carved the cardboard into shield and sword shapes and went to work with aluminum foil, magic markers and craft paint. The children descended, along with entire families because we homeschooled and when you do that, everybody does everything together, quadrupling (at least) the number of guests. No matter. I was prepared with enormous trays of ham-salad sandwiches.
Other birthdays included scavenger hunts. Sports themes. Darth Vadar. In retrospect, I realize we exceeded sane limits with our birthday bashes, nearly to the point of tasteless excess. I’m not sure why the celebrations were so over-the-top, but I think it had to do, mostly, with how delighted I was to be a parent, to have children, to watch them grow and change.
The rub is, of course, that when you celebrate growth and change, your offspring tend to take you at your word. So they grow. And they change. And they expect you to be pleased about it.
I’ve complained about this before, but this week I felt more at ease with what comes next. Perhaps I’ve finally decided to let go of the controls that reassure parents and hinder their kids. Or maybe I’m just worn out. Both options seem plausible.
This year, my son led us in low-key birthday observance. He didn’t want a party, offered no wish list, cracked jokes as he opened his cards and showed moderation with the luscious chocolate cake his grandmother baked. He pierced his ears this summer during our family vacation and he’s talking about a tattoo. I’m astonished to realize this doesn’t bother me. After all, when I turned 18, I was in the throes of a divorce.
It’s a mercy that my son hasn’t subjected me to what my parents endured. He is, as he frequently points out when questioned about minor infractions, a good kid. I enjoy him and I fully expect he will be a remarkable man. At moments, I see it already. Then there are the days when he acts his age, exactly.
And since that is now 18, I have plenty to learn, too. It’s time to master the art of not waiting up when the car isn’t in the driveway at midnight. Time to listen before offering an opinion. This is the phase in parent-child relationships, I’m told, when we transition to a role more like a coach then that of teacher, supervisor or shepherd. We walk alongside, instead of ahead.
That may be, but when I watch my neighbor and his girls, I see him walk at a steady pace, unconcerned about who’s ahead or behind. The important thing, it seems, is that they’re all walking together, in roughly the same direction.
It might turn out that I road-trip with my son this weekend in search of body ink and adventure. The trip is light years away from the walk to kindergarten, it’s true, but in some ways it feels the same. We’re stepping through the front door, down the sidewalk, on our way out into the wider world. I can’t imagine what we might find.