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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Warp Speed

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about our daughter and only child going away on a school retreat for a week. The gist of the piece was that the idea of letting her go left me bereft, and there was a lot of lead up because her cousin who is two years older lives next door to us. I mentally mark every major event this niece experiences, knowing that our girl is only two years behind. When her cousin went on that sixth grade trip and our fourth grader’s time wasn’t scheduled for two more years, I rationalized that it would be eons before our daughter’s turn. All too soon, we wrestled her sleeping bag up the steps of the school bus so she too could take the forty mile trip. I wrote that piece after developing a healthy respect for the shortness of time, having learned as all parents eventually do that what looks like an eternity when it is in front of you ends up passing in a blink.

So yesterday, when I dropped our sophomore off at school and then encountered our niece, grinning and waving as she drove herself to attend the last day of her senior year, I swallowed hard. I do after all; have clear memories of that blonde-haired toddler waddling down the uneven path between our two houses to give me a hug. I know now that it was only minutes later that our own girl arrived and grew big enough to scamper up the path to play with her cousins. Those films featured prominently in my brain at breakfast this morning as our daughter, nostalgic now that the seniors have departed and eager for her own turn, announced that as of today, she has 376 days of school before she graduates. “That’s way too long” she stated. When I commented that if she put the two remaining school years together, they add up to little more than one calendar year, she rolled her eyes. She after all, hasn’t been a mother yet and doesn’t know that time melts away like ice cubes under a blow dryer.

If we optimistically think that our children will live until their eighties, and we let them go at eighteen, we have less than a quarter of their lives on which to make a mark. No wonder some parents have difficulty releasing the reins. In the Op Ed section of today’s Boston Globe, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University wrote an article relating to a recent campus tragedy. He began his piece focusing on “helicopter” parents, who continue to circle over their children long after they should be letting go. But after recent events in which a student was murdered a few blocks from his school, he became a “helicopter” president, present in dining halls and dorm rooms, in regular contact with parents via broadcast email until the perpetrator was caught. Through his management of this crisis, he learned some respect for the angst parents feel when their children grow up. In my mind the entire story offers perspective on how and why some parents simply can’t stop the hovering.

Raising healthy and successful children is the single most important feat that anyone can accomplish and the time in which we have to do so passes in milliseconds. Doing it right means trusting an untrustworthy fate and making hard decisions that result in independence for our children in spite of all we know. So while I worried like crazy the first week our daughter went away I didn’t chaperone that sixth grade trip, even though I could have. Later, she went to camp for a month each summer and while I hated it, I enforced the no cell phone rule that many parents of her peers disregarded. By doing so, she came to know that she could manage without us, and we did too. Her time on her own allowed her to provide, at least in some regard, for herself. The experience solving her own dilemmas ensured that her confidence grew, an added bonus was that her story telling skills did also. More freedom and stories, I daresay, will come along with her pending driver’s license. She’s eligible for that in February, which by my calculations means in approximately a nanosecond.

Clearly time is fleeting and after the two coming years that will feel like two seconds, following in the footsteps of her cousin, we’ll pack her things and deliver her to college. In the meantime, as she grows and evolves; I’m starting to recognize that her increased independence transforms us all. Where our home used to consist of two adults and one child, relatively recently it has shifted into a house with three individuals that engage each other in humorous conversation at the dinner table, offer informed opinions on current events, and partner in decisions relating to family dynamics.

It’s not fair. Time flies and just when they make the transition from dependent children to something more closely resembling friends, they are off for good. Honestly, I have no interest in hovering in the helicopter. But with a bit of chagrin I admit to wondering wistfully how she’d feel about an additional pair of roommates.

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