Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Children Have To Grow Up (I Guess)

American Music Club--"Another Morning (with Kathleen)" (mp3)
Emily Haines--"Expecting To Fly" (mp3)

If you want a real kick in the crotch (I'm being gender inclusive here), try sending your first child off to college for the second year.

Oh, the first year is all right. Terrible, but all right. You have the excitement of your child making her big move off to college. The whole family mobilizes for the experience--running around the house gathering everything you think she might need, cramming the car so full that you can't see out the back window for the trip to college. You push her towards independence, counsel her about money, offer her wise advice about drinking and sororities, while at the same time, you want to get to know her college and her friends who go there and their parents.

The college welcomes you and helps to smooth the transition. When you return home, your grief is tight and focused. You live for breaks and trips up to college and you throw yourself into other things. You have other children at home and you cling to their lives and activities, as their leaving for college is comfortably in the distance. Come Parents' Weekend, you encounter other parents who don't seem nearly as torn up that their daughter (or son) isn't home and you give yourself a reality check of sorts. Briefly.

But when she returns home after that first year, you are presented first with the Great Deception, and then with the Great Realization. First, the Great Deception. Most colleges get out pretty early and stay pretty late. You trick yourself into believing that your child has come home for good. It's easy. She has nearly 4 months at home, reassumes ownership of an automobile, tells you when she's going downtown to meet her friends. You talk to her four or five times a day on the phone. In short, she settles back in.

More than ever, she is mature and helpful. She wants to do things with her family--movies, meals, trips, shopping, parties. She works, but is available when the contractor needs someone at home so that he can schedule his workers. As you do the modern family rat race, you suddenly have another driver, another greeter, another hostess, another voice on the phone, another responsible adult. It can't last.

And as the summer comes to an end, you confront the Great Realization. Your child is leaving again, she has one less year of coming home, and soon she will be gone for good. Freshman year creates the comfortable illusion that college will last a long time; sophomore year points you (and her) towards the finish line. All of a sudden, people start asking about majors, you start pondering the semester abroad, her summer job in your city will no longer quite good enough (an internship in a large city or exotic locale would be far more impressive!)

And worst of all, in three more years (maybe 5, if grad school is in the picture), you will not want her to come home. Of course, you'd be glad to have her, but coming home means failure, means diminished job prospects, means people you know will wonder why your child isn't out on her own, means the four or more years of college somehow didn't quite do what they were supposed to.

But those aren't the real issues. The real issues are more obvious, and they all center around the idea that the child that you never wanted, on some level, to grow up has done so. On to the next stage of life.

American Music Club's "Another Morning" is available at Itunes; Emily Haines is also there, but her version of Neil Young's "Expecting To Fly" is not.


John said...

Your moving tribute comes on the day that my youngest daughter turned five. We celebrated this morning before school with a new bike and a Dora Pegasus and unicorn shirts from the grandparents. Already I find myself having a hard time believing that she's changed so much; your column hit all the right chords. Thanks.

Daytimerush said...

It gets worse?? Say it isn't so!!!

Billy said...

Like John, I'm already learning the painful lessons that the imaginary parental umbilical cord stretches painfully farther away from you every year, even when they're just small kids.

But the idea that one day it gets cut? That eventually you're forced to trust that they might voluntarily find time to stay connected? Inevitable, perhaps, but frightening even when it's more than a decade away.