A momentous occasion is happening today: my youngest child is graduating from high school.
As usual, the clichés are all true. It really does seem like just a short time ago, she was following me down the sidewalk with a lunchbox bigger than her five-year-old head. This post isn’t really about that, although I’ve been shaking off those thoughts all morning.
The thing that’s freaking me out is this: although my daughter is almost 18, and my son is 20, suddenly I feel like a brand-new parent all over again.
When each of them was born, I felt excited, terrified, proud, overwhelmed—like every other new parent. The stakes were high: life and death. If I slept too hard, they might suffocate in their crib. If I chose the wrong foods, they might have an allergic reaction. If I failed to pay attention or made the wrong decision, I could ruin them or even lose them for good.
To make matters worse, it seemed like for the first few years of their lives, they were actively trying to kill themselves. You know how it is with babies and toddlers: turn your back for a second and they’re sticking their fingers into light sockets, wandering out into traffic, trying to eat toxic substances….remember?
You probably see where I’m going with this.
Parenting an almost-adult feels exactly the same. The stakes aren’t life or death anymore, but they’re still high. Decisions my kids make at this stage will absolutely impact the quality of their lives for years. In some ways, early adulthood is a trajectory, and a degree of difference now can have a big impact on where they wind up in a decade or so.
There are the big life decisions, like where to go to college, and what field to study. Whether they’ll follow their passions or follow a paycheck. Then there are those insidious, spur-of-the-moment choices that could change their lives forever: driving drunk, just once. Skipping the condom, just once. All the time, every day, whether they realize it or not, my newly adult children will be making choices that determine the courses of their futures.
So yeah, I’m not sleeping very well these days, just like when they were babies. I’m constantly second-guessing myself, just like when they were babies. And some days, they seem like they’re actively trying to ruin themselves, just like when they were babies.
They don’t stick their fingers in light sockets any more, but some of the choices they make are just as stupid. And just like “Don’t eat that bug” didn’t make sense to them when they were toddlers, my pearls of wisdom are lost on them at this age, too. They speak English now but they don’t speak Perspective. I probably sound like an adult from a Peanuts cartoon: “Wah wah wah, wah wah, wah.” I want so badly to help them through these tough years, but I can’t. They have to grow up on their own.
I don’t mean to sound negative—this time is very exciting! It’s like when they were learning to walk: they fell down a lot. I wasn’t any less proud of them for it. (Can you imagine? “Get up, you little hobo, learn to walk right!”). It’s worrisome and frustrating, but that’s what kids do when they’re learning to walk. At this age, they’re kids one minute and adults the next, and I love them either way. They make me angry, sure, but they also surprise and delight me with the people they’re becoming.
Last night I went to my son’s apartment—his first—and there he was, living like a starving twenty-something, nothing in the fridge. He’s working, going to school and barely scraping by. I’m so proud of him I could bust. I’m so worried about him I can’t sleep. He’s right where he’s supposed to be, and I guess is this is probably just how I’m supposed to feel.
And today my daughter will graduate. My heart’s all swelled up with tenderness for her. Like when your baby starts to smile and coo—you knew it was coming, and every kid does it, but there’s something so magical and heartwarming when it’s YOUR kid. I know I’m going to lose it when I see her in the cap and gown. I’m excited, terrified, proud, overwhelmed—just like 17 years ago.
Congratulations and good luck to all the graduates in the blogosphere today, and to their parents, too.