From the moment a baby is born, everything — from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention growth charts to the vaccination schedule hanging on the pediatrician’s wall — tells us that the parenting finish line comes at 18 years old. Even keepsake albums and novelty frames for school portraits usually top out at 18 years old or 12 finished grades.
And so, with each passing birthday and grade completed, it feels like we are slowly (and then at warped speed after junior high) marching to “the end.”
On my Facebook newsfeed this past spring, I saw that formidable “end” coming for many of my fellow parents.
“I can’t believe we’re reaching the end,” one parent wrote about her child’s upcoming graduation.
“I have dreaded this day since the day she was born,” another wrote.
When I drove my oldest son, Ford, to college last year, it certainly felt like a dreaded day, an end to — something. Everything was telling me this is true. We had already transferred him from his pediatrician to an adult doctor on his 18th birthday. I no longer went to his appointments or knew his schedule.
His graduation had been just a few months prior, and already, his face and name had disappeared from the online gradebook that parents can access. The school department sent me his official folder with a picture of him — wide grin, big teeth, a cowlick in his hair — in second grade taped to the front. Inside, I found documents I had completed when I registered him for school.
What are his strengths and weaknesses, the school had wanted to know. What motivates him? To which type of instruction does he respond best?
In my familiar handwriting, something that hasn’t changed in 30 years, I saw my answers. I knew them like the back of my hand then. Ford was my every breath from morning to night. I knew every ache, his likes and dislikes, his favorite foods.
Do I still know those things now? I wondered as I drove him down the interstate, our trunk packed to the rooftop with new bedding for the dorm.
Of course, and rightly so, no one asked for my answers when we arrived at the university. Whereas I once told Ford to wait in the elementary school lobby while I completed paperwork and copied his vaccination records, now I sat in the car while he checked in with the residence assistant and got the key for his room. I was a passenger. A bystander.
And that was certainly an end to something.
We hugged outside an arena where he’d soon join hundreds of new classmates and friends and begin his new life — on his own. It felt like a hug goodbye. I held tighter, tighter than he expected, but as tight as I remember him holding on to me when I coaxed him into the kindergarten room for the first time.
I watched him disappear into a sea of youth, and it was like I was closing the book on one of my favorite stories.
A couple weeks later, Ford came home on the bus for the first time. He arrived with new ideas, new opinions and some favorite foods I had not expected. We all stayed up late that night. We played trivia games and Ford and his brothers talked about movies.
And it felt like the beginning of something.
Each time Ford came home, he was different — and yet, the same. His new knowledge and views of the world required me to stretch my own thinking. He challenged me in ways I used to challenge him as he was growing up. He had new interests, new experiences and new foods he wanted us to try.
Sometimes, when Ford came home that first year and his brothers were still in school, we’d go on walks just the two of us. I didn’t need to hold his hand or watch for cars as he crossed the road. I didn’t need to stop and tie his shoes and tell him about the week’s plan. That part of parenting had indeed come to an end.
But something else had begun. Now I had space and time to enjoy this adult child, to talk to him like a friend, to absorb and learn from all his new experiences. The little boy I’ve always known is still there. I see him in his eyes when he is tired or the way he still gets excited about chocolate chip cookie dough. But a new man is just beginning.
And although I still sometimes lose sleep over all the things that have ended, I see now that new beginnings can be just as beautiful.