Friday, September 28, 2012

I Am Learning To Be A Parent Of Grown Children

by Amy Ruhlin                           

Today my 17-year-old son offered to drive my husband and me to visit our daughter at college. It's only a 90 minute drive from our home. I suggested the trip this morning over breakfast, and our son told us that yes, he would like to go, and that we can take his car.

"It will be fun," he says. "We can listen to my music on the way!"

We are delighted by his enthusiasm and thankful that he still wants to spend a weekend afternoon with his parents.

Before we leave, I make some coffee for the drive.

"You're bringing that in a travel mug with a lid, right mom?," my son says. "Remember, I have cloth seats."

I can suddenly see our old minivan that I drove when our kids were young. I see myself in the driver's seat calling all the shots. I see my children in the backseat, safely strapped in and enjoying the ride. I see their crayons and coloring books spread out on the seat. I see their juice boxes in the sticky cup holders, their gummy bears on the floor and their goldfish-shaped crackers stuffed between the cushions. I want to remind my son of this, but I don't.

"Of course I'll use a travel mug," I say. "Don't worry. I promise I won't spill coffee in your car."

My son makes sure that the lid is secure on my mug, and then we all head out the door, and down the driveway to his car. My husband calls shotgun and I say fine, I'll sit in the back. I want to be a good passenger.

I am slowly learning that the skills required for being a parent of grown children are quite different from those required to parent younger children. The early days seem easy now: change a diaper, adjust a car seat, hang out at the playground. These days require more: listen closely, instruct less, let go, practice restraint... not my strong suits.

We're on the freeway. My son turns on his stereo and slides in one of his CDs. It's rap or hip-hop; I still can't tell the difference, even though he has explained it to me many times. Either way, I don't like it.

"Will you turn that down?" I ask him. He turns the music off.

"It's okay mom. We don't have to listen to music," he says.

We travel along in silence for a while, and from the backseat I can hear my husband giving well-intended, but unsolicited driving advice. I can see that our son has become a good driver: he is cautious and attentive to the rules of the road. I can see the tension in his shoulders, and that he is trying to appease his parents.

I see that he has come on this road trip with us in good faith, hoping that we will recognize that he is fully capable of driving the distance, and that we will, all of us together, enjoy his music, the ride, the day. I see that my husband and I are blowing it.

"Let's listen to the radio," I say.

"You'd like the radio on?," my son asks.

"Sure I would," I say. "Or we can listen to one of your CDs," I add.

He puts in a CD. Thankfully, it's different from the one that he first played. Actually, this CD sounds beautiful.

I think about all of the CDs we listened to over the years in the minivan: narrated children's storybooks, favorite songs from favorite movies, my old rock- n- roll tunes. Sometimes when I played the music too loud the kids would scream, "Mommy turn it down!" I want to remind my son of this, but I don't.

"This CD is great." I say. "Who is it?"

My son proudly tells me the name of the band, and then he and his dad begin a lively conversation about music. I see his shoulders relax, and I notice that my husband stops giving driving tips.

I lay my head against the backseat, and I look out the window. I see round bales of hay on rolling hills. I see a big half-moon in the late afternoon sky. I have my warm coffee in a clean cup holder, and my papers and pens are spread out on the seat. I like it back here.

My son glances over his shoulder at me, and with warmth and affection he asks,

"You doing okay back there mom?"

I can see him as a toddler in his car seat. I look in the rear-view mirror of our minivan and I ask,

"You okay back there buddy?"

"Yeah mommy," he says, "I'm good."

I answer my son: "Yeah, I'm great."

Later that evening, we arrive back home and my son pulls his car to a stop in the driveway.

"Hey mom, don't forget to get your coffee cup and all of your papers out of the car," he tells me.

I can see our old minivan again, with the gummy bears and goldfish crakcers stuck to the seats. I want to remind him, but instead, I say,

"I've got everything," and I climb out of the backseat.

"Fun day," he tells me.

"It sure was," I say. "And thanks for driving. I enjoyed the ride."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Will We Be Happy In Our Empty Nest?

by Amy Ruhlin

It’s a cool morning with the first hint of fall in the air so I drink my coffee outside on our back patio. I look at our overgrown rose bushes and thinning mulch beds but what I see is my children when they were young. I see them helping us plant shrubs in our new lawn and spread pine straw around our flower beds. I see them hiding Easter eggs behind the maple tree. I see them holding my husband’s toolbox as we hammered nails into the towering pines to build their tree house; it is still there but the wood is beginning to rot. I see the empty space along the row of cedars where the swing set once stood, then the trampoline.
I walk around the corner of the house, along our stone path made of hand painted rocks and I see the step that my daughter made , the stone with the words “Love Blooms Here” spelled out in glass beads. The 16 years that we have spent living in this house are palpable here in our backyard; there was magic here. I cherish the memories but I also feel my grief. As I walk back into the house I notice that a few leaves on the Dogwood tree have turned from faded green to bright orange.

 I notice a stack of envelopes on the kitchen table; they are addressed to my son and they are full of letters and fliers from colleges. I see the envelope that is stamped with the word “Accepted.” In eight short months our son will graduate from high school and the empty nest will become a reality for my husband and me. We are planning to sell the house, to leave the suburbs, to create a new life for ourselves. We talk it up but I secretly wonder if we can really do it, if we will be happy, if our lives will have the same zest, the same magic as we’ve known  all of these years raising our children in this house.

I walk upstairs and I notice the worn carpet. It is matted down from where my daughter sat on the floor of her bedroom for years playing with her dolls, giving them their own voices, making them come to life. It is worn from where she and her brother sat for many summers in the hallway building rock houses, giving each rock a name, their young voices making stone come alive.

I think about the phone call I got early this morning from the carpet store. Our order is in: 159 square yards of new carpet to be installed in the entire upstairs; the old carpet will be ripped out and carried away, the new carpet will help to sell the house.
I sit down at my computer and I see a quote that someone has just sent me. I notice that it is by Roald Dahl, our favorite children’s author; we often read his books together as a family. I read the quote:

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

It is a quote that I know my 20-year-old daughter likes so I copy and paste and send it to her. A few minutes later she sends me a response: a single small black heart created by typing two different keys; to me, this is magic.

I look at the heart that she made and my own heart lifts. I believe our magic is not over. It is not something that ends when my children are grown, but rather, something that they help me to see. I believe that it will be there in my next act, in our empty nest. I believe that at the age of 50 and beyond, we can still see with glittering eyes.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are We Being Those Parents?

by Amy Ruhlin                         

It is a quiet Saturday morning. My husband and I sit in our family room and read the newspaper and drink coffee. We are both-bone tired but we have this whole day to ourselves; to read, to relax, to do whatever we want. Our 17-year-old son is at work until evening.  Our 20-year-old daughter is back at college. We spent the previous week helping her move into her first apartment that she now shares with four of her girlfriends. It is a move that we know is inching her closer to full adulthood, closer to true independence.
The dog is mercifully asleep in the corner and the room is warm with morning light. We’re on our second cup of joe when my husband receives a text from our daughter.

“My shower head just broke off,” she writes.

“Well, can you fix it? You’ll need a wrench,” my husband texts back.

“Nice response,” I tell him.  "She has to learn how to handle things on her own. This will be good for her."
“I agree,” he says.  “And if they don’t have the tools, she can call the landlord.”  The issue settled, we go back to reading the newspaper.

A  few minutes later our daughter sends another text. I watch my husband read it silently to himself. Then he tells me, “She's distraught.  She’s asking me what additional tools she needs to buy for the repair. The landlord is booked  with other students since it is the first week of school. I guess I can walk her through it on the phone."
We do not want to be  those parents. You know the ones:  they  hover, they rescue, they can't let go, they  enable. They help to create their "boomerang kids," so the experts tell us.

The dog begins to stir, the light shifts and shadows fill the room.
My husband peers at me over the newspaper and says,

“It’s 10:30. If we leave now we can get there by 12:00 and have lunch some place nice.”
“I’ll drive,” I say.

At noon, we arrive at our daughter’s apartment and she greets us at the front door.
“Thanks for coming,” she says.  "Come see my room!”

Her room is simple and bright. She has painted the walls yellow.

She has rearranged the furniture. She has added some curtains. She has organized her closet.
We walk into the bathroom to examine the broken fixture. The sink shines and the tub is clean. She says she scrubbed it that morning.

The three of us drive to the hardware store and together, we find a $9.00 repalcement part. “I can afford that!," our daughter says.  "And it’s white. It will match perfectly,” she tells us.
She is thrilled that she is able to buy her own shower head. She is pleased that it is just the right color. She is comforted to have her parents help her with her first foray into the hardware store for home maintenance. We buy her a wrench on the way out.

We stop at a restaurant for lunch. The portions are large and our daughter carefully wraps up her leftovers to take home--something she never did before. “I can eat this for dinner tomorrow night," she says.  "My food budget is running low.”
We go back to her apartment and my husband fixes the shower. We visit with our daughter for a short while and then we decide it's time to leave. She walks us to the door.

“Thanks again for coming,” she says. "It meant so much.”
As my husband drives us back home, I sit in the car and  wonder if today was a rescue. I wonder if  we were being "helicopter parents."  Then I wonder if we were simply offering  an act of kindness  that was met with heartfelt  gratitude.  I wonder if  today, as parents,  maybe we got something right.

We arrive home in the evening and it is dark. The dog meets us at the door and wants to be fed.   My son sits in the family room and watches TV. 
"I'm beat," my husband says to me. "But what a great Saturday."