The other day Rosellen and I were talking about how distressing it is that, with both of our daughters now in their fifties, there’s so little about their growing up and our parenting during those early years that remains in sharp focus. Was there really a time when we all lived together under the same roof, never really quite believing that the situation would ever be any different, that one day we would be living in different parts of the country and the world, living in our own apartments and houses, driving our own cars and paying our own bills? We loved so much about their growing up years. They were such rewarding kids who blessed us with their good health, their studiousness and their general good natures that we puzzled over the friends who couldn’t wait to see their kids gone so they could get on with their lives. Our daughters were our lives and we never wanted them gone.
These musings, never too far from my consciousness, resurfaced last week when a note arrived from my friend, fellow teacher and thought partner, Kimberly, a request for prayers for Zachary, her oldest, who is off to college for his freshman year at the University of Dayton. It reminded me that we are entering empty or partially empty nest season when the centrifugal force of kids spinning off to college begins the process of the splintering of so many American families. I attended a commuter college, so I didn’t experience this force until four years later when I left for graduate school, but the same dis-integration of the family was at work atlater date.
In any case, here’s what I wrote in response to Kimberly’s request for prayers for Zach:
My prayers are for you, not Zach. He’ll be fine. Sending off your first-born is painful. It’s the beginning of the end of a life that you and Mike have constructed over the last eighteen years. When I was the principal of my little school in New Hampshire, I saw a mother in tears in the school yard after she had dropped her child off for the first day of school. I asked her what was wrong. She said that child was the youngest of five, so every day for the past fifteen years she had had children at home with her. Now she was scared to go home to an empty house. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do.
That’s a different kind of break from the old order than the one you’re facing and you’ve got plenty in your life to fill that void, but things are never going to be the same. When Adina went off to Wesleyan in Connecticut from our home in Houston, we couldn’t accompany her. We drove her to the airport and arranged for a friend to meet her at the other end and help her get set up. On the drive back, I cried my eyes out and was so oblivious to what I was doing that I got stopped for speeding.
I remember Garrison Keillor saying that the kids you should worry about are the ones who DON’T leave home. The ones that do are evidence that you’ve done your job well. Take comfort in that.
Like Kimberly, our nest was not really empty when Adina left. Elana was still with us for another three years and that is one of the unspoken perks of sending your first-born off. Before a second – and third and fourth – arrives, the oldest has something that none of the latecomers can hope for – the full, undivided attention of their parents. Of course, the effects of family configurations on each child are subject to so many variables that the outcomes aren’t easy to predict, but my impression is that oldest children, expecting the center stage position they once had, tend to consume a greater portion of the available oxygen than the latecomers. Their departure gives their younger siblings a shot at the undivided attention the first-born once basked in and an opportunity to test their own voices which had often been drowned out by their older brothers and sisters.
We enjoyed watching Elana come into her own during those years, while we remained eager to hear as much news from Adina as she was willing to share and looked forward to every school break when she returned to us. With both children long long gone, we still hunger for those communiques from the field. Their lives are their own to live now, but as a friend said on the day her first child was born, there will never be another day while we’re all alive that we won’t worry about that child and, I should add, delight in their exploits.
So, finally, I would say to Kimberly that although there’s pain attached to letting Zach go, it’s the beginning of a new stage in all your lives, a time when all the terms of your relationships with one another get scrambled and redefined. There are a lot of unknowns in this new situation that could spell trouble, but in their unpredictably there’s excitement about what’s next.