Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Doctor, you told me I was having a baby. This here's a grown man.

Every year by this time, I become so impatient with Summer, I would drag her out of her hiding place if I could. This year, I'm not in such a rush. Another chilly, drizzly day? Swell! It's only April, after all. Summer can take her sweet time this year. There's no hurry. You see, June 21st marks the first day of the summer before my only son's Senior year of high school. In just a few months, me and that boy who used to curl up on my lap for a story and a song will be checking out dorm rooms and campuses. Though he's been separating from me in small, healthy ways since his tweenhood, the idea that he is going to move out and start his own life is only now becoming real to me. My nest won't be empty for over a year, but I'm already starting to feel anxious and blue about this inevitable event.

I recently went online and immediately found lots of great suggestions of how to keep busy and ways to refocus. Jackie Burrell does a great job covering these in her About.com post Empty Nest - 7 Ways to Help Parents Vanquish the Empty Nest Blues. As you might imagine, many parents feel useless after their children leave home. After focusing so sharply on such a monumental effort for nearly two decades, people find it difficult to have to refocus so drastically and so suddenly and even more difficult to find an outlet for all that energy. I'm sure I won't be untouched by this phenomena, but it's not among my biggest fears.

I'm worried that I won't be able to be happy in my new world where I don't get to see my son every day. I'm having a hard time seeing myself happy without frequently spending time with him. He makes me laugh; he makes me proud; he inspires me. And not just because he's my son--I'd adore and admire him no matter who he was to me, he's just that wonderful. Everyone tells me I'll find a way to stay happy, and I have to believe them, but I don't think this is going to be easy. I've known my son for almost half my life. He is a part of my childhood and now I'm letting go not only of his youth, but of my youth as well. I think letting go and missing him will be the two biggest challenges of my empty nest experience. I'm very young as empty nesters go--in fact, today many women my age are just starting their families, so it's difficult for me to find support, understanding and community within my age group. Though I'm fortunate and grateful to have friends outside my age group who are also becoming or have become empty nesters, it's a lonely place to be sometimes.

Too, this major event is a reminder of time's relentless march. It's just rolling along, seemingly gathering momentum, and I can't slow it down. We're born, we grow up, we raise kids, and we...move to Florida and take up golf? Wait that's not right. But I do sometimes feel like there's little left for me to accomplish in the cycle of life, other than to sit around and wait for the end--even though I'm only 36. In short, I'm becoming acutely aware that my youth is fading, and I don't like it. This milestone event reminds me that the 'Big D' is waiting for me at the end of the line and right now I'm struggling to see the remaining stops along the way. It's not a logical feeling, but feelings are not logical, especially during life events such as this one.

Under the guise of logical expression, I've lately been preoccupied with writing my own report card. While grading myself on my last 17 years or parenting, I ask myself all sorts of questions. Should I have done X more? Did I do Y too much? Did I teach him enough? Is he going to be alright on his own? Will he ever learn how to make Kool Aid? Does he know how much I love him? Did he have a happy childhood? His father and I got divorced when he was 9 and I wasn't able to give him my best for some time afterward. It has always seemed to me that he got a raw deal during that transition. I felt terribly about it for years.

Yesterday, on the car ride home from a Lacrosse tournament, everything changed. Out of the blue, we started talking very casually, yet very openly about our feelings on the subject. It just sort of happened. I was surprised because talking about feelings isn't one of his strong suits. He told me that, during those years I thought were so dark for him, he could tell I was very sad, but that he himself had never been sad more than momentarily about anything that happened and that he had always been a happy kid. He said that he really did enjoy his childhood. In sharing this with me, he gave me such a great gift. He let me look briefly through a window into his little boy world and it was nowhere near as bad as I'd been imagining it all these years. Until yesterday, I had given myself A-pluses for every year that I raised him except the three years after my divorce. For those I gave myself D-minuses--barely a passing grade--and I beat myself up mercilessly for all the should-haves and shouldn't-haves those years produced. Even with my tough grading policy, I averaged a B-plus, but I think if you asked my son, he'd give me straight A's and extra credit--and his grades are the only grades I care about.

I sometimes wish I could go back and change the way some things happened--make them perfect, how I always hoped they would be. But then I look at what I have today: a close relationship with my son, who is a happy, confident, kind, compassionate person, and I think things happened just the way they were supposed to happen. I guess I wouldn't change my imperfect parenting, since it would mean changing the results, which are perfect for my son and I.

Pretty deep, huh? Well, this isn't all Kleenex and Cabernet. This is actually a very exciting time. My son is young and free to discover himself and he has some very happy days waiting ahead of him. I'm excited for him, and I'm proud of him. I know the fact that he's going off to college, rather than playing Halo all day in my basement and making it smell like feet, is a sign that we did everything right. While it's sad that he's not going to be around as often, it would be a crying shame if he never went anywhere because he was afraid to or because he didn't know how.

I suppose I instinctively knew all along that this day would come, even though I'm only now outwardly acknowledging it. When I was 18 and I found out I was pregnant with my son, I immediately went out and bought him a welcome gift. It was a favorite story of mine, and it became a favorite story of his too--Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are". I bought it for him because I wanted him to know that no matter what he did, or where he went, he could always come home to a warm supper and a mother who loved him. The offer stands, always.

Time flies

The boy in my lap...

The man in the world...