Seven-and-a-half hours in the car by yourself leaves a lot of time for reflection. It was the eighth and last return trip from dropping off a child to start a year at college. I kept thinking about the very first time. Lots of hugs, a few tears, and an ache in my gut all the way home. I sat on his bed and thought, “This room is finally clean!” And I felt sad about it. Really. After thousands of “Clean up your room or else!” threats, it was never more clear how meaningless that was.
For a few weeks I kept walking into his room (when nobody was looking, of course), and re-experiencing the sadness. It gradually faded in intensity but would briefly re-intensify at the end of each vacation visit. When our second son left it took longer to adjust to the change because now there was a total silence. We were officially empty nesters and it certainly did feel empty.
I miss those early years. It’s easy to forget the exasperation, worry, anger – the images that remain more vivid are the hours of “floor time,” the Sunday mornings when two young boys would jump into our bed, the family vacations, the unique experience of a little voice calling you “daddy.” There are times when you wonder how you’ll survive the demands and worries – and it’s certainly more intense for mothers than fathers in most families because they spend much more time managing the day to day issues. But, when this transition comes, the whole experience suddenly feels very condensed and too short. The clutter is gone. So is the noise level. So are the children.
Remarkably, all of us adjust to the change, as dramatic as it is. But the paths we take and the ease with which we make this adjustment varies considerably. The quality of our marriage and the way we view life and the world around us strongly influences this adjustment. I filled the time that I had spent coaching, disciplining, playing and talking with my sons with the hobbies and community commitments that I didn’t have time for before. My wife and I certainly had lots more time to talk and to do things spontaneously. Soon I was busier than when the children were here! Meanwhile the boys have gone through a period of incredible change that has added significantly to my perspective as a parent. We underestimate what it means to begin to be on your own. Why do we worry so much during those early years? Even those children who may struggle to get their “sea legs” gradually begin to move in the right directions. Not that there won’t be some major challenges ahead, but for now it seems like a good time in their lives and, surprisingly, in mine. That’s what I thought about on the long ride home.
I remember when issues such as doing homework, going to bed on time, eating properly at the dinner table, and keeping toys out of the living room were dominant parental concerns. Later these were replaced by concerns about curfews, manner of dress, grades, driving safely, sex, and substance abuse. Looking back I can see more clearly the significant components of these issues but I also see the tendencies, as parents, to overreact to the apparent importance of everything. We think our children will pretty much be formed by the time they leave home and we think what we do as parents is the primary influence over how our children will turn out. This puts great pressure on us to do as much shaping as possible before they leave. Too bad, because it creates a lot of extra tension and reduces our ability to really enjoy our children during that relatively short period of time when they live with us every day.
What becomes clearer as they become adults is that our children continue to change in dramatic ways. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the decade from 20 to 30 is actually the time of greatest change in our lives. Moving out into the real world and making all those daily decisions, plus struggling with long-term issues such as choosing careers and spouses, often results in the emergence of an adult personality that can be very different from that of the child whose life we were trying to manage. And yet I also see a certain core temperament that persists throughout, an aspect of each “self” that is more genetic and biological than experiential, an aspect over which parents have limited influence. All of this challenges us to try to understand, and be more realistic about, what the real role and influence of parenting is.
So with the increased quiet in the home I have spent more time pondering about what was really helpful to my children as well as what might have been more helpful. As always we have to do a lot of learning on the back of the oldest child. No matter what we know from books and our own experiences growing up, nothing really prepares us for parenting. For example, I know it took me too long to learn that my oldest was only going to work hard at things that really interested him. But, based on their own perspectives (it is fascinating when your children, as adults, offer a commentary on how they experienced you as a parent while growing up), there appear to be two very important positive parental influences. One is a sense of unconditional love, a seemingly overused term coined many years ago by Carl Rogers, but something which truly can be conveyed even through challenging times. The second is a willingness to encourage and support their decisions, which requires parents to not try so hard to shape their children’s lives and to believe that it is okay for children to make mistakes.
The boys knew they would have a say in their lives, even at an early age, and that we would be there for them regardless of whether or not their actions were acceptable. This contributed to a closeness, developed at an early age and fostered throughout their years at home. It doesn’t mean we were soft; there were definitely rules and consequences. But I was especially clear, as a father, that I wanted to make the enjoyment of my relationship with each of them a priority, knowing all along that it really was going to be a very short window of opportunity to share a daily life with them.
In the normal course of events, we parent adult children far longer than we parent children through those “growing up” years. If we develop the closeness when they are young, it is usually rewarded with a continued closeness that is incredibly satisfying, important, and special, long after the rooms are empty and the sounds of young children no longer fill the home.