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October 22, 2021

This is the Hardest Part of Parenting. 

 

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My oldest son decided not to return to college after the first year, and I still have so much sadness that I hide away. 

I think that’s one of the hardest parts of parenting—pretending our experience isn’t important. In front of them, we have to tamp it down. If we don’t have someone to share it with later, parenting can feel so lonely.

We hide our big feelings or dress them down to a kid-sized insignificant version so that our little undeveloped human doesn’t grow up believing their needs are secondary. We don’t want them to put their emotional experience on hold for our needs. (They’ll learn how to do it once they have kids. The irony.) 

Our children say mean things sometimes. They disappoint us, reject us, abandon us, ignore us. Our kids do the things we fear at our core, and, to some degree, we have to be okay with it. Or, at least hide it away from them.

One of my favorite experiences was the time we spent together dropping him off at school—just me and him. I’ll never forget it. It’s crystallized in my memory bank. He packed his belongings by piling everything inside his sheets like giant Santa sacks, and with all that stuff in the back of the rental car, we road-tripped across the country to a place I used to live, which was also about to be his new town. We spent a few days hiking my favorite trails and checking out all my old hangouts. I hoped some of those places would become his cherished spots.

The best parts of this trip were the many authentic conversations with this boy who had too quickly (for me) grown into a man. We talked about his childhood, his struggles, and his life philosophies. It felt like being invited into the living room of someone I wanted so badly to know but have only seen through the front window. 

That’s another thing we have to hide from them. We can’t let them know how desperately we want intimacy with them, how we want to know them deeply on the most vulnerable level. They don’t need that kind of pressure, so we hide away what we desire more than anything.

It was a time filled with hope, excitement, and potential. I rarely have an entire week alone with just one of my children. Some of that hope, excitement, and potential was for our future, for our relationship, for more road trips and drop-offs with just the two of us.

When I remember that trip, I’m overtaken with sadness. I’m sad for how hard the year turned out to be and that he was alone, surrounded by people he barely knew. I’m sad he didn’t get the hugs he badly needed. I’m sad he has to grow up so fast now, without that college cushion that would buy him a few more years to just—be—and not have to figure out how to do everything on his own. I’m sad we may not have more trips to nurture our relationship in the kind of way that only happens when you spend extended lengths of time together.

When I picked him up, everything felt different. The trails weren’t as vibrant; the sky wasn’t as blue; the food wasn’t as delicious. We stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of the action. It felt like we’d faded into the background of the scene; it was an ending.

In theory, I’m excited about his next adventures. In my mind, I know his journey is his own and that it will take him to the places he needs to go. But in my heart, I’m just sad, and I have to keep it hidden away because he doesn’t need to know that. He doesn’t need to carry more than his own. If we’re not careful, that’s what some kids do. We follow the adults around, trying to help with what they carry because we don’t want our lives to burden them. Then, when we grow up and know it’s not our job anymore, it becomes our knee-jerk reaction until we are mature enough to stop doing it.

And so, we have to be diligent. We have to do the thing we’ve worked so hard to unlearn: hold back those big feelings and deepest desires to protect the people we love the most.

~

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