Children make your life important. — Erma Bombeck
I’m staring at a dresser covered with dirty glasses. They have rings of dried and yellowed milk, encrusted smoothie droplets, and they are sitting on top of a stack of plates, some with pizza crusts hanging out. All that goes through my mind this time is a meme my best friend sent me. It said “if you don’t like their messy room, wait until their room is empty…”
My best friend has always been one academic year ahead of me in the parenting game, from the time our kids met at age nine months (mine) and 18 months (hers). Now mine is a senior who just got into college and hers is away at his first year of college. I feel so many different emotions right now. It’s like I’m baking banana bread and I’ve thrown all the ingredients in, and the mixer is just starting to churn different things to the surface. My feelings are in the bowl of my stomach, and sometimes what surfaces is sugar, sometimes it’s salt, and sometimes it’s rotten bananas.
I used to teach seniors. About this time of year, I’d start to get really miffed about how unfocused they were on my awesome curriculum. Here they were, as capable as they would ever be in my hands, and they just didn’t seem to be doing anything.
Now I have a view from the other side, and I know that they are doing so very much. Everything they have known and depended on seems to be quickly approaching a cliff. There is an end date to their friendships which are the most important thing in the world for them. They are trying to detach, yet trying to fully inhabit all the days they have left with those friends. They want every ritual and rite of passage to its utmost, they need to know that they are experiencing the best of every event they’ve been expecting, but sometimes they are too scared about their world changing to be present when those rituals are happening.
At the same time, they are wondering if they will get into college, or into their favorite college, and they often think this is the balancing point of their entire future. This year in particular, they are scared about succeeding because they feel a learning gap from the pandemic, and they wonder if everyone else does too.
Meanwhile, their parents are grieving. It is not named as such in our society, so parents don’t know to approach it that way. We are expecting to feel triumphant and proud to have shepherded this human from birth through all of these accomplishments that occur this year, and most certainly, that is how we will appear on social media: so proud and happy about my newly minted grown-up! Hello world, behold the beauty and accomplishment!
Inside, though, grief makes us do funny things. We cling too tight to our seniors or we brush them off too quickly. In my case, I suddenly freeze and become utterly incapable of doing anything simple like packing a lunch, then alternately move into constant unnecessary motion and find myself doing way too much, as if to make up for everything I wish I’d done. As my senior was taking a bow in his very last high school play, I had a Hollywood-style flashback of so many moments in his life, the most memorable of which was holding him one minute after he was born. I want him to stay my baby forever, but I also want him to seize his future.
In the 940 Saturdays that happen between birth and leaving for college, did I take every chance to lean into the privilege of being part of his life? There are 25 left now. How will I make sure those are all perfect? These are the ridiculous questions that go through my mind. The truth is it’s all been perfect, and it will all continue to be perfect. My child has roots that grew into wings this year. It’s humbling, shocking, frightening, gratifying and beautiful, all at the same time.
Lisa Catterall teaches STEAM, math, science, and art at Mount Madonna School and is a senior associate of the Centers for Research on Creativity. She lectures and trains teachers and administrators on innovation in education in Beijing, China. Lisa has five children and lives in Santa Cruz County.