Everyone thinks that having children and starting a family is a blessing—one of the greatest human experiences. When our children are born, we swaddle them in those thin hospital wraps as if they were the filling to a bean burrito and coddle them against our bosoms. And it’s true that everything about those first hours are blissful. All that weird lip-smacking newborns do, along with the strange finger exercises and spontaneous twitching… All it takes are two reproductively mature human beings alone in a dark room…or a well-let one if that’s your thing…or a bathroom stall at the office Christmas party…and voila! The two of you are now the proud owners of an eight-pound sack of flesh that keeps you up all night, covers your hands in feces and urine, and destroys your household budget.
We cling to every year that follows because we’ve been told (a hundred, a thousand, a hundred-thousand times) that it all passes so quickly. That may be true for some people, but I don’t think it’s true for me. The first 22 years of my children’s lives felt like every bit of 22 years. And in case you’re wondering, 22 years is a long, damn time. Over both of those decades we muddled through all those life-benchmarks: the potty-training, kindergarten, youth sports, middle school dances, puberty, making the team, not making the team, stress over homework, stress over boys, stress over girls, mean girl drama, petty boy drama, petty other-parent drama, grades, proms, and other things. It really was a long, long stretch of time.
I spent it all embracing the moment. I followed those rules. But I also spent it imagining the future. I saw them sporting stress wrinkles, widow’s peaks, and receding hairlines. I saw them sitting at the table with me knocking down a highball and talking about stock portfolios and the state of the Republican Party. One of the strange paradoxes of parenting is that we desire both the need to be involved with our children for every possible moment while thirsting for adult interaction and conversation. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we juxtapose these dichotomies when we’re actually in the presence of our kids.
Before any of that happened, of course, they became teenagers: the seven-year stretch where everything went to hell, and parenting suddenly transformed from the occasional sigh-inducing headache into the epic journey to that lake of ice and fire Dante described his Divine Comedy. Somehow, in the most subtle of fashions those once charming and delightful conversations with curious little ten-year-olds—about why cold fronts stir up stronger winds than warm fronts…why the zone defense makes the NBA boring as hell…why the global campaign to stop ozone depletion was a surprising success…why everyone on the Titanic should have survived…all of that was replaced with the sort of drama worthy of the best Daytime Emmy.
Parent: How was your day?
Teen: OH MY GOD! I DON’T KNOW! WHY DO YOU HAVE TO KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT MY LIFE! I CAN’T DO THIS! MY LIFE IS PURE HELL! I HATE IT HERE! Uhhhhhhhnnnnnnnnnn!
Or maybe it played out this way:
Parent: How was your day?
Teen: I dunno…
However it played out it felt like this:
Parent: You see that glowing, mushroom cloud to the north? That’s Chicago. It just got nuked by a terrorist’s dirty-bomb. The fallout will reach us in about six days. We’re going to have to move and leave all of our possessions behind.
Teen: Huh…? Oh… Wait! What? Hey Dad, can I have some money?
The first 22 years of my children’s lives felt like every bit of 22 years. And in case you’re wondering, 22 years is a long, damn time.
The scenarios are endless and commonplace: When they walk through the door in the evening, grunt a hello, traipse up to their rooms, and spend the rest of their waking moments texting their friends, you seriously weigh the legal ramifications of making them get their own apartment. When they flip on their phones three minutes into “family movie night,” you contemplate quizzing them over the plot when it ends…with their right to eat dinner on the line. When they give you directions to their friend’s house—“I dunno…it’s a brown house. It’s got Christmas lights on it. It’s got a lot trees around it.”—you seriously consider kicking them out of the car so they can “walk there” and “figure it out along the way.” From one maddening episode to the next, most parents of teenagers find themselves—when they can steal a second or two of solitude—looking in the mirror and facing a harsh reality: These f***ing kids are NEVER going make it as adults.
And then they leave. First it’s college for a stretch of weeks, growing to a stretch of months, eventually growing into full summers on campus. Sometimes the university days end quickly, and they come back home. Other times all four (or five, or six, or more) years work out, and they settle in to their new “home town.”
And that’s when the strangest thing happens: One Thanksgiving weekend they come home, and they talk to you like full-fledged adults. They speak in complete sentences. They make steady eye-contact with you. They nod their heads when you speak to them. They even carve a grin across their chin when you add a dose of irony to your point. The long, fraught, haggard, and redundant conversations of their youth have been replaced with the pointed, thoughtful, and brief discussions among adults. Somehow these once walking electrical charges of raw, unfiltered, lethal emotion have become normal people.
This Thanksgiving morning, all those normal people are upstairs catching their last bit of biological “Z’s” before this afternoon’s tryptophan throws them a few hours’ worth of chemically induced snores. We were out last night. I had beers and a cocktail with my kids (the two old enough, that is), and their friends, and their significant-others. Later today, they’ll “shake off this downy sleep” and join us. They’ll still gossip. They’ll still talk about the music, the YouTube clips, and the clothes which interest them. But gone are the weird quirks and impulsive tics which made life with them in their pre-human stage often unbearable.
And as quickly as they arrived, they will leave. Some like to comment about what they would give to have those two decades back. To go back and re-do or un-do the decisions they made raising their children along the way. I’ll pass on that. I spent 20 years imagining my kids as they are now. I don’t see them for very long, but when I do they are everything I always hoped they would be.
Don’t ask me how it happened. I haven’t the slightest idea.