When Jake started applying to colleges this past fall, panic set in.
My friends and family noticed the change in my attitude toward Jake: I am less patient, more prone to criticize. A wee bit more uptight with the boy than I’ve ever been before.
Karen has asked if I am subconsciously pushing Jake away now, so that it will hurt less when he leaves this fall.
My Mom worries that Jake’s leaving in the fall will devastate me, and has asked if my crankiness with him is because I’m struggling with his imminent departure.
All around, the assumption is that my irritability with Jake is due to an anticipation of the pain I will feel when he goes to college this fall.
Nope, that’s not it at all. Will I miss him when he goes? Absolutely! Unlike summers when he’s gone away or trips he’s taken, this big leaving in August is the end of the beginning of his life. This is the end of his time spent with me, and that makes me sad. From now on, his life will be lived under a different roof, and I’ll have lost my front row seat. Although that is as it should be, I’m not so big a person as to not use my impending loss to get more time with him, now.
“Jake, your brothers and I are going to play Scrabble. Will you play with us because soon you will go away forever and a little piece of my heart will die?”
“Dude, do you want to come on a walk with me because you are my tiny baby and you’re going to go away and leave forever and I will never see you ever again for the rest of my life? Ever? So……a walk? ”
That is about sadness and loss, and it’s separate from the new irritability I feel towards Jake. My criticism of the boy has to do with what, I imagine, many parents of college-bound high school seniors are doing: assessing the life-readiness of the child we are sending out into the world, and finding it lacking. I’m frantically scrambling to finish this eighteen-year project; to plug the holes, polish the facets, drive home the importance of lessons I’ve tried to teach him. It feels as if it is of the utmost importance to tie up all his loose ends, pronto, before he sets off to meet the world on his own.
Whereas before I would issue a two-word correction when table manners were shaky, now I go the Shock And Awe route.
Before it was, “Manners, please.” Maybe with a raised eyebrow and a sharp look thrown in for good measure.
But now? Now I say, “Oh, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. Son, if I see you chew with your MOUTH OPEN just ONE more time, I am going to STAB YOU WITH MY DAMN FORK. I have been telling you this for over a decade, WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN? CHEW WITH YOUR MOUTH CLOSED. Always. Every time. Forever. With God as my witness, I will stab you with my fork, and God will TOTALLY UNDERSTAND WHY I DID IT, TOO.”
Panicked that unfinished parenting might cause him future struggles, I’ve lost any subtlety I ever had. I’m not reasonable.
Discussions of daily plans are likely to turn into lectures on how one should hold oneself and look others in the eye, and then segue into a fifteen-minute directive on the use of dental floss and its ties to self-respect, dignity, and thoughtfulness.
In the middle of dinner preparation I’ll turn to Jake and declare, “You need to be really careful with doing shots. It’s just too easy to drink too much that way. Do you understand this?” And when Jake doesn’t seem to take my warning as seriously as I think he should, I break into the statistics I’ve recently found on alcohol-related deaths at state universities. When the look on his face indicates that he thinks my motherly rambling is cute, I end up in tears, urging him to take me seriously.
“Mom,” he asks, “don’t you think I have a good head on my shoulders?”
And I do, I really do think he has his head on straight. So far, so good. But life is about to throw so much new stuff at him, and he’ll be facing it alone. He won’t be roped-in on this climb, as he has been before, and if he falls I won’t be at the end of that belay line to stop his fall.
It’s not his judgment I worry about, it’s mine.
Have I done this child justice in my parenting? Since the moment he was born, he’s trusted me to keep him safe. Have I betrayed that trust, in any small way, by failing to teach him what he needs to know to go out into the world and keep himself safe and whole and healthy? To be strong and successful in whatever he chooses to pursue? Because if I have, then I need to fix it right now or we will all die a horrible death, the end.
I tell him this, and he wraps me up in a rough teenager hug and says, “Mom, you’re awesome. You’ve been the best Mom I could have–anyone could have– and I’m so lucky. I’m going to be fine.”
I hope he’s right, and I hope he remembers to use dental floss. Dental floss is very, very important.