When your children are little, you'll think that they will change the world; by the time they turn twenty, you are simply glad that they aren't in jail.
A research nurse gave me that advice when my family was young, and events this week led me back to reflect on the difficulty of raising grown children. My son is a delightful rogue: smart and personable, strong-willed and sharp-tongued. He also seems completely unable to find his path in life towards becoming a happy, successful, independent adult.
We struggled with him as he came up through school: he was the oldest so it was our first time through as parents. He bounced in and out of advanced programs that teachers recommended. Between 15 and 17, he ran the table of sex, drugs, smoking, drinking, and staying out all night in sequences of three months each, then thankfully left each behind. Somehow, he did great on his college entrance exams and was admitted to an east coast university. We thought we'd finished launching him, but he bounced back home after two quarters.
He said that he didn't see the relevance: kids study and party and, at the end of it, they're no further ahead than if they'd worked instead. So he took a job loading trucks for UPS from 10 pm to 4 am, dabbling with occasional community college classes. The union position provides great benefits but little pay; he earns half what he needs to live on his own. He sleeps all day, playing online games and watching manga as a substitute social life, to my wife's direct frustration back in Seattle.
As he approaches 21, it has to change. My wife and I have struggled with whether we are supporting or enabling, and our lives feel stuck because of our inability to get past his. I'm worried that, legally, alcohol could re-enter the picture. It came to a head over Christmas with an ultimatum that he had to choose, left or right, full-time school or full-time work, and move ahead with life and move on from home.
As the kids grew up, we told them (and ourselves) that they could become anything that they wanted to be, and we were careful not to answer the question for them. But I don't think that I ever allowed for the possibility that he wouldn't want to be anything. I never gave up believing that the right answer was always to love and support him. I still haven't.
He called this week to say that he was pressing his suit, buffing the resume, and headed to Boeing to see if he could become a machinist. Sure, I swallow hard and wish him luck. But, after 21 years, his opportunities finally exhausted, my marriage crumbling, I'm really feeling tired and defeated. So I called my friend, the research nurse in Tucson, and we had a good talk about raising kids and about letting go, about love and independence. It's still going to be hard to come to terms with, but it did help to put things into perspective and make it all feel a little less lonely.