The Longest Shortest Twenty Years of Your Life
“It feels like it’s starting to get away from us,” Jack, my husband, said as we lay in bed this past weekend, our children’s howls and thumps reverberating from the den. By “it” he means the time we have with our babes. And yes, of course, there’s plenty of time left – our kids are 13, 11 and 8, as of recently, and still love to hang, as they say.
But the fact is, our days of being parents of small children are pretty much behind us, having passed in a dog-tired blur. While I don’t miss those early days exactly, I am conscious of the passage of time – that it expands like the Big Bang, hurtling away faster with each year.
“It’s the longest, shortest twenty years of your life,” a friend once told us, back when our kids were merely toddlers. We were up most nights then, and always had a nose to wipe, a bath to give, a diaper to change. Time seemed to crawl by, evidenced only by the stubborn dark circles that had parked themselves under our eyes and would not move.
It’s only now that we’re beginning to feel the hard truth of our friend’s observation. No longer are we in the business of being our children’s everything. I think, if pressed, our two older kids could actually survive without us. Perhaps not well, or happily, or comfortably – but could they eek by? I say with a mixture of pride and dejection that the answer is probably yes. I see it in their closed doors and hear it in their self-possessed laughs to jokes we’re not in on. Our children are needing us less; the cuddles come at their convenience; they have secrets.
Just last summer, I watched through my rear view mirror as my middle daughter, Charlotte, played dreamily with a naked, brown-haired American Girl doll. Seat belt pulled tightly over her hot pink t-shirt, she sat up tall, flat-chested, with the doll perched on her lap. I was breathless at her beauty. Charlotte whispered to her doll, “Do you want some chocolate milk?” She smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead just as I have done countless times to her and her sister.
I never wanted the moment to end.
Yet, only a few weeks ago Charlotte went to her first Middle School formal dance, and with a date no less. He’s a nice boy – funny, upbeat and a good dancer to boot. And whatever “romance” they share consists mostly of “liking” each other’s goofy posts on Instagram and meeting up at their lockers for a daily download of “what’s up.”
Although she’s not in the full swing of teendom yet, with the eye rolls, the make up, the obsessive texting, her doll days appear to be over. Charlotte didn’t even move her dolls – including her once beloved nudist, surrogate daughter – into her new room when she checked out of the space she used to share with her younger sister.
“Jo likes to play with them,” she said. “And I want to put pictures of Paris up in my room.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited for the way she wants to take a bite out of life and hope she continues to share her stories and passions with me – the ones she’s willing to share, that is.
But every day I feel more like “The Giving Tree.”
If it weren’t for the wonders of this journey, I might be inconsolable at the way I’ve been downgraded. Unable to hear the awe in my husband’s voice when he comments on our children’s growing independence.
But I do hear it, and his excitement is infectious.
He will point out how gratifying it is to witness the emergence in them of an interior life. They can now draw comfort from solitude that doesn’t consist only of imaginary play and fantasy, giving us a reprieve from their once constant demands for amusement or attention. And it is riveting to listen in as our children transcend the hysterically idiotic conversations that we’ve overheard from the back of the minivan over the years, diving headlong into exchanges about politics, the fallacy of “reality” TV, the effects of divorce on friends who are going through that particular family crisis.
At this very moment, I’m eavesdropping on my daughter’s on-Skype debate with a friend about the virtues of Rembrandt versus a female artist like Georgia O’Keefe. The discourse then moves to Magritte – “None of his stuff is even disturbing!” before morphing, inexplicably, into fashion – “You never wear jeans. Only yoga pants and tennis shoes. What’s up with that?”
It is humbling to learn that my eleven year-old knows more about art than I do.
They are beginning to contemplate not only how their lives are shaped by their environment – food, shelter, an education, a democratically elected government, an intact family – but how they, in turn, can shape the environment around them through acts of kindness and understanding, an ability to own up to their mistakes, and to grow from having to eat the occasional sh*t sandwich. Clumsily, they are learning to grasp how standing up for themselves boldly and aggressively if need be, can change the power structure in almost any relationship.
Even the one they have with us.
Expressions of love, while less joyful and flagrant, are true and come when we least expect them. “I don’t think you’ve ever lied to me, mom,” my son told me over the holidays. “Except, of course, about Santa and the Easter Bunny.”
“Have you lied to me?” I asked.
“Uh…can I plead the 5th?”
I’m impressed he even knows what the Fifth Amendment is. So, yes, there is much to find in the transformation we are witnessing, and ultimately, responsible for.
But my husband and I cannot deny what we will be leaving behind either. While we have always bragged about what great empty-nesters we will make, even Jack now acknowledges that he no longer looks quite so forward to our kids fleeing the nest, paying their own bills, and leaving us in peace to rediscover our pre-children relationship. Lately, in addition to dreaming up travels we’d like to embark on together – road trips to quirky landmarks, remote towns, and vistas of God-like splendor – we are starting to scheme brazenly about orchestrating fantastical trips that will be too tempting for our children to pass up when they get older. Especially if we’re paying. Christmas in Prague, a villa on the Italian Riviera, a beach vacation in Thailand and other fabulous getaways that we’ll doubtfully be able to afford.
“If we do our job right,” my husband says. “They will most certainly leave. They might even run out of here like they’re on fire, but they’ll be back. And if not… there’s always grandchildren.”