Letting Go of Our Kids

Heavy sigh as I drove away, watching him in my rear view mirror struggle with his gear and then disappear into the school.
And quite unexpectedly, I burst out crying.
My son was growing up. He needed me less and less.

Our son went on a camping trip with his 5th grade class last week. He was gone four days, spent three nights bunking with eight of his classmates and a high school chaperone. They shared a cabin (with heated floors and a private bathroom), one of many scattered around Camp Arroyo, nestled in the eastern foothills of the San Francisco Bay.

High drama days before he left. Lots of spontaneous hugs. He’d grab me on the stairs, or in the kitchen while I stood cooking at the stove, wrap his arms around my waist, bury his face in me and say, “I’m going to miss you, mom.” And, of course I returned the sentiment, which seemed to sate him, and me momentarily. I put on a brave front, but as his day of departure drew nearer I dreaded how much I’d surely miss him.

Other than rare sleepovers at local friends, my son’s first overnight experience without mom or dad was the previous weekend on his first Boy Scout campout. He didn’t seem all that enamored with camping. Dirty and tired when he got back (after less than 24 hours away), he endlessly repeated, “It’s so great to be home.”

My son was not the only kid feeling nervous about the 5th grade campout. Two of his friends admitted feeling scared, one never having had a sleepover anywhere but relatives. Several parents laughingly confessed to feeling anxious about missing their kids over the four days they’d be gone. Many had yet to be away from their children for more than a weekend at most.

I, too, felt apprehensive. My child wouldn’t be safe at home where I could watch out for him, be there for him if need be. A long time ago, when I was in my late teens, my mother told me she never fell asleep all the way until her kids were safely ensconced in their beds at night. Only then would she be able to rest. At the time I figured she was trying to guilt me out for coming in late a lot. But as I helped my son pack for camp the night before his departure, I anticipated three restless nights without him.

Dropped him off at school the next day like any other morning, except for the sleeping bag and pillow he put down on the curb so he could hug me goodbye. He held me hard, and long, which was weird right in front of his school and classmates like we were. I hugged him back, tried to transfer my love without too much drama and left. Heavy sigh as I drove away, watching him in my rear view mirror struggle with his gear and then disappear into the school.

And quite unexpectedly, I burst out crying.

My son was growing up. He needed me less and less. As he moved into his teen years we’d naturally separate, until he’d no longer be completely immersed in my life. We’d been bonded for 11 plus years and I could feel it coming to an end. And sadness consumed me on my way back home, but only for the first block from the school.

As suddenly as I started crying, I stopped. The next four days I didn’t have to stop working at 2:30 p.m. (and 1:00 p.m. every Wednesday) when he came home from school. I didn’t have to be the constant nag, reminding him every other minute to study, practice guitar, do his homework or his chores. The dinner menu didn’t need to be altered to my son’s particular tastes. Sushi was a distinct possibility since our daughter was generally open to trying different foods. And best of all, I didn’t have to play ref or break up their petty sibling rivalries.

The four days my son was away with his 5th grade class passed in the blink of an eye. I published two new articles, finished the second chapter of the final, final, final…etc. draft of my second novel, finished the French screens I was building, found and set my daughter up with a great new 2nd grade math program, and shared with her some of the best Japanese food ever—turning her on to a brand new cuisine. There were no sleepless nights while my son was gone.

He hugged me when I picked him up from school after his trip last Friday. His embrace was warm, and tender as usually, but over quickly. He pulled away, looked around and then picked up his stuff. I carried his pillow to stop him dragging it along the ground as we walked home. He told me about his time away, but I had to prompt him a lot, and though he insisted he was just tired, I felt a contextual difference between us, a distance imposed by him, or me, or both.

We were quiet for quite a bit of the walk, but it didn’t feel awkward. He seemed introspective, more grown up than little kid. His youth, like much of our time together was passing, as it should be, but none the less, there is sadness in this. The upside is as my son moves on, I get to as well. As he embarks on life on his own, I can get back to mine—the life that became secondary when my kids arrived on the scene. From the day they were born they’ve been my first priority, and though perhaps they always will be, their daily demands are getting less as they become more self-sufficient. And as we all grow and mature, I find I no longer fear, but accept, and even welcome the separation occurring between us.

On Being Cool

Cool means Popular when you’re 11, and I suppose even for adults, too. Most of us want to be liked, admired, feel special, unique, seen as cool. It’s why we buy iPhones…

Had a meltdown on my tween son when he asked, yet again, for an iPad at breakfast this morning.

Before the iPad he wanted a laptop. He insisted he needed my old HP the moment I purchased my Toshiba, though could give no reason why he had to have it since he had a powerful PC with an enhanced graphics card for gaming in his room. After weeks of needling me I finally gave him my old laptop to share after backing up [mostly] everything. He loaded the same games he had on his PC and played them in bed on the laptop for about a week, until he inadvertently downloaded a virus which destroyed every program, every file including seven years of my labor. Between ‘mostly’ and ‘everything’ backed up turned out to be the Grand F**king Canyon.

Prior to the laptop he needed an iPhone. He’s had a cellphone since the 5th grade, when he started walking the quarter mile home from school. In the two years he’s had it, he forgets it at home most of the time unless I remind him to bring it with him. More often than not the phone has no charge because he doesn’t remember to charge it. Though all his friends have cellphones, he’s exchanged numbers with no one, and this seems fairly typical among his contemporaries upon inquiry.

Before the iPhone he had to have a video camera, which he got for his birthday. He used it a few times to tape episodes of Sponge Bob off the TV so he could view them later through the camera’s viewfinder. That lasted about a month until he tired of it and he hasn’t touched the camera since.

An iPod was before the video camera. I use his iPod when I’m recharging mine since in the four years he’s owned it he’s used it maybe 10 times collectively.

He sat at the kitchen table this morning eating his cereal telling me how badly he needed an iPad. They are so cool, he insisted, giving me his puppy face, and good for school, he assured me, though was unable to define how since a home PC with internet access was all his middle school required. He kept at it throughout breakfast, bargaining away all other gifts for his upcoming birthday in exchange for just one iPad2.

And I blew a gasket.

He wanted too damn much! He asked for too much with no purpose. What the hell was the point of all these things when he didn’t even use them?

To be cool, mom, he said through tears.

His palpable shame was a knife through my heart. At 11 years old, crying had ceased to be acceptable except in tragic situation, and me yelling at him wasn’t one. I sat down at the table adjacent to him and stared at my son, fighting tears from overwhelming me as well.

Being cool isn’t about what you have, I reminded him gently. Cool is about what you are, who you are, what you do that makes you special, separates you from the crowd. He was a straight A student, in advanced at math, played electric guitar, but every accomplishment I pointed out just made him cry harder.

None of that matters, he insisted. No one cares about that stuff. And being a nerd might pay off later but right now no one his age knew or cared who Bill Gates was, he said, throwing my refrain back at me.

Your dad would ask why cool matters, was the lame response I came up with. I knew cool mattered, even to me, but especially for a kid becoming a teen.

It just does, my son assured me. And I’m not, he added shakily, unable to stop the new round of tears.

My heart in my throat and struggling to swallow back my own tears stopped me from lecturing, but I again reminded my son that iPads and iPhones and video cameras are tools, nothing more, and possessing them doesn’t make one cool.

Yes, mom, he patronized me. But an iPhone is still cool, and so are iPads. I felt him lighten before I saw him grinning to himself.

They are cool, undeniably, which makes the engineers who invent Apple’s products cool, but not so much the people who use them. I needed to be sure he understood what cool really is, and perhaps remind myself as well.

Michael has an iPhone and an iPad and he’s totally popular, my son insisted. Everyone likes him. He has tons of friends and no one picks on him, ever.

Cool means Popular when you’re 11, and I suppose even for adults. Most of us want to be liked, admired, feel special, unique, seen as cool. But I knew Michael wasn’t popular because of his iPad and went about trying to enlighten my son without losing his attention. I spoke of Michael’s extensive involvement with his church, attended by many in our area. I pointed out Michael’s rather jovial demeanor, and reminded my son that his friend was also an avid sportsman, into soccer, basketball, baseball…etc, the ultimate key to cool for boys in school.

Perhaps Michael’s popularity had nothing to do with his iPad, I suggested. And to further my reasoning I asked, If Evan had an iPhone or iPad do you think he’d be more popular?

Evan is a jerk, my son proclaimed. He’s mean and rowdy, and he has an iPhone, mom. His eyes seem to sparkle with awareness of his own words. Then he smiled. He got it, and I smiled, too, for about a second, until his expression darkened again. But I’ll never be like Micheal, do what he does. I’m not discovering religion any time soon, and I suck at sports and don’t really care about ’em, and I’m not exactly what you’d call upbeat.

And I’ll never write like Stephen King, or Ray Bradbury, or John Fowles—

Who are they?

Famous authors you’ve obviously never heard of. Forget it. Tell me, who else is cool, dude? Name five, other than your friend Michael. Anyone, doesn’t have to be one of your contemporaries…

Greenday, he looked to me for approval.

Okay. Who else?

Death Cab [for Cutie] (another rock band). Thomas Edison. Einstein. And Jason, at school. All the girls really like him.

I laughed. Why?

I don’t know. He’s short but kind of buff already, I guess. He’s on the track team and the basketball team and he tells everyone he lifts his dad’s weights. He’s really into working out.

And what do all five you just named have in common?

He fiddled with the remainder of the Crispex in his bowl as he pondered my question.

They’re all good at something.

And how do you get good at anything? yet another of my canonical refrains.

Practice.

You bet. Find something you love, that turns you on, and work at it, my beautiful son. Practice your guitar more and become a great musician. Invent a new video game instead of playing someone else’s creation. Learn how to program and develop apps, show us you need an iPad as a tool to create with.

He brightened, smiled at me. I had his full attention again, my reason for slipping in the iPad comment.

Owning an iPad is easy, my baby, and meaningless, just one of many who do and more who will. Creating with one is cool. Cool is as cool does, kid. Pursue a passion and you’ll be engaged, entertained, and so enraptured in the process you won’t notice or care if you’re popular. And how cool is that! ; – )