People watch what happens in a bird's nest, and people say that it's the same with us bipeds. They say our babies grow and either "fly the nest" or need to be booted from it forcibly. Okay, I can see that. ... And people call the depression that the adults experience the "empty nest syndrome." Okay, that makes sense. But there's something nobody tells you! I never heard anyone talking about this part of it. (Was I just not listening, or do people not talk about this part?)
The fear. Nobody tells you about the fear.
Grief ... they talk about that. For some reason of human contrariness, we grieve when our kids grow successfully into adulthood. Odd, and unreasonable, but true.
And adjustment. People talk about that too. Revising one's own self-image out of "parent of children" into "parent with no active parenting role" ... I've seen people do that with great aplomb and creative exuberance, and I've seen people who refuse to do it, deny it's happening, and simply continue to attempt to parent their large, voting, marrying, parenting-their-own-kids kids who aren't kids any more. And people talk about that transition. Judith Viorst's helpful book Necessary Losses talks about this. Good book, that one.
But the fear. Nobody tells you about the fear.
Remember when that child was very small, yet large enough to begin to be mobile? Remember the way your heart caught in your throat as the child learned to walk, and "walking" was a silly word for that process of stepping into the falling forward and the occasional not stepping so that the falling happened instead? (It's scary to watch, but it's funny too. And the kid is so completely thrilled with himself that his enthusiasm is contagious. We all learn to cheer at the walking.)
But what about the stairs! Stairs do have to be navigated eventually, after all. Even if you were one of those parents who opted out of the pulse-arresting period of crawlers going up and down the stairs, and even if you resorted to gates and overturned chairs and anything else you could find to keep your small one from the magnetic and fascinating staircase, you still had to live with watching a short-legged little sprite of a human, and once he did learn to hang onto the railing and go up and down stairs on his own, walking upright, when the steps were as tall as the whole of the child's inseam, you still had to watch that moment.
It's terrifying to watch -- but if you don't just let them do it ... well, what would you end up with? Do you really want to have to carry the "child" up and down when he's eight years old? No. You don't want that. So you let them risk life and limb and your own blood pressure elevations, and you let them learn to do stairs. And if you're a Montessori devotee, you might even devise "stairs" for practice in a non-life-threatening way. (This is a pretty good idea - climb little things, and get the climbing techniques in ways that won't end badly at the bottom of a whole flight of stairs. "Flight" of stairs! It's the opposite of flight when the small body is tumbling down the stairs.)
We get over that fear, though. We learn to take delight in the child's delighted mastering of a new skill. Babies are supposed to learn to do this, and besides -- it makes our lives easier when they can walk on their own two feet, and dress their own little bodies, and go up and down the stairs without our needing to set down the groceries (or the next new baby) to carry them. And life is going by so quickly that we don't even have time to wallow in those first parenting fears.
But a whole new world has opened up around here now, and I demand to know why I wasn't told! Our three kids are (typically) taking three very divergent paths into the great unknown future, and we are watching. We watch as we did when they were babies rolling over for the first time, and toddlers learning to walk more than fall, and preschoolers going up and down the stairs. We're in the stage of emptying our nest, and ...well .. the thing about baby birds in flight is that there is nothing to do but watch. There's no assistance possible now. None. Wherever we do more than sit in an advisory capacity, ready if asked, we take from them the chance to fly on their own. What happens if you try to assist a bird mid-flight? There's no flying possible if you "assist" with that, now is there? You just gotta kick 'em out, and watch 'em go. The time for teaching becomes the time for review. The semester's done. The rehearsals are over. Whatever metaphorical way I explain this to myself, the fact is that I can't do anything but watch while they begin to fly on their own.
And I feel a resurgence of every time I ever watched that child learn something new and dangerous, and all those times become this time here, now, and rolled into one reaction of helpless fear, intensified by the knowledge of what happens if they forget how to flap their wings. It's one thing to fall off the practice steps - and quite another to fall from flight near the tops of the trees.
And yet ...
And yet ...
I remember another thing now too.
I remember the wave upon crashing wave of happiness that goes with each new thing. The baby who wills himself into a creep and then a crawl and then a cruise around the furniture ... it feels like all the victories of all the efforts of all the world to watch that one small child learn to walk into his world and be eager to take hold of it. It feels like banners waving and cheering crowds. The parent who participates in the first steps is the parent who claps and smiles and showers applause on that one little human person because every parent feels this sense of overwhelming happiness at this common, ordinary, startling, victorious event.
So here I am again. I cheer for my son who sends me an email with the subject line "yeah, I'm still alive." He's had a rough time of it lately, and he's shaking the cobwebs from his young and frustrated brain by "traveling to friends house to friends house and being a bum. dont worry its cool with them. i have changes of clothes and toothbrush and everything and im still going to work on time and been paying my bills and still know i still owe dad a bunch of money and im still going to pay him back." I cheer ... and I need a tissue. He knows how to take hold of his own life, and he learned somewhere to tell me that it's okay - he's okay - he knows I need to know that. Somewhere along the line, he figured out that I could cheer with genuine happiness, but that I still might need a tissue.
Thanks, Steve. I'll see ya when I see ya.