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Life has been pulling something over on me ever since I became a parent, and it’s taken me this long to figure it out. My parents constantly told my siblings and me that when we turned 18 their job was over—we’d be adults. (A little aside: I’m five out of seven. My mom should have been sainted. Of course, I didn’t know that then.)
This turning 18 thing is like a decree we bow down to and never question. It’s as if we universally imagine a switch turning on and suddenly our kids are grown up and responsible. Borrowed cars will be returned with more than fumes in the tank, empty cereal boxes will no longer be put back in the cabinet, and the terror we experience when they come home late without texting will be replaced by faith, ease and sleep.
My youngest is turning 18 and—news flash!—the ending to the feeling of worry, responsibility and enmeshed loving of our kids is a complete fabrication. No, it’s actually a delusion, a fairy tale that was perhaps spun to help us do what we do for as long as we do it without losing our minds. The truth is: There is no finish line. Of course not; we’re talking about our children. Eighteen is a number, like 17 or 16, 10 or 9. Nothing will ever mark its ending.
When you think back to when we first had kids, how intensely we committed to learning everything at every stage, it’s incredible. While we’re in it, we don’t look ahead or even around the corner. We can’t—we don’t have the bandwidth. It’s like we become Buddhists, living moment to moment, mindfully committed except for maybe the glass of wine we’re counting on later. Otherwise we’re impressively present as life in its classic, unpredictable way guides us.
I remember taking my daughter to the park when she’d just learned to walk. She toddled about while 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds ran around, kicking sand. Park hoodlums is what I thought, and no part of me could imagine my daughter ever being like them. That is what happens to our brains. Logical? Not by any stretch. But so true.
Now I’m here at the long-anticipated 18 with my youngest, and a few things come to mind. First, it’s a freaking miracle how life deceives us. That I let myself believe all my hard work, commitment and patience over the years would lead me to here. Had I known the gravity of what was really awaiting me at 18, who knows what might have happened. Sex, dating, love, SAT, ACT, college essays, applications, drug talks, pot, drinking, condom importance, internet porn...yep, that is what is waiting. (OK, a lot of the talks began in their early teens, but 18 is when they find their sweet spots and deepen who they will become in life.) Add in the incredible pressure from wondering if all you’ve already taught them is going to stick in a way they can carry with them—when and if they go off to college. From which, by the way, they come home every holiday, all summer and a few weekends here and there. Not quite a launching out forever.
Looking back on all the stressing about preschool choices, making the A or B basketball teams, which friends were in their homerooms, I could have ratcheted it down a bit. OK, a lot. Thank GOD I was duped into believing 18 would be the end of the road, because it actually seems like the beginning of a freaking freeway with no speed-limit signs.
P.S. When I told my mom I was getting divorced, I had three young kids and hadn’t worked outside the house in too many years to count. She cried her eyes out and said it was the most worried she’d ever been about me. I was in my 40s. It truly never ends.