Ben turned 21 earlier this week. He took it pretty casually, but it impacted me more powerfully than I had imagined it would.
In the morning, I posted one of his toddler pictures on my Facebook timeline, along with a brief appreciation. I heard from friends from many different parts and periods of my life, sending congratulations to Ben and reminding me of shared experiences over the years. Each message spun me into reminiscence, and I spent most of the day, when I wasn't working, reliving all of his birthday parties, his first day of school, even the thrilling, terrifying day we brought him home from the hospital.
Bill and I spent the evening alone together, because Ben was at a soccer game. His favorite team was playing and he had decided months ago that he would rather miss a birthday dinner than miss the game (he took a rain check for the dinner). Even if he had been home, I probably would have gotten lost trying to reconcile the adorable cherub of my memory with the huge, deep-voiced, athletic adult in front of me.
Later in the week, we had to drop our cat off at the vet. When he was younger, I took charge of the carrier, and he came along for company. Now I need to schedule vet appointments on days when he is also free, or risk throwing my back out.
On the way home, a nimble toddler walking behind us escaped from his mother and led a frantic chase, which we joined, to prevent him from running into the street. Afterward Ben said, "A lot of people have told me that parenting is this amazing, rewarding experience. I believe it's true for them, but when you look at how often things like this happen—I don't see the percentages."
I agreed that parenting had been, in many ways, a nerve wracking experience for me, but that I would not trade it for anything. He said, "I know. I absolutely believe you. I just don't see how that could be."
I wanted to say that it was one of those things you have to experience to understand, but I stopped myself. I think too many people are told that they will feel the love and wonder once they have their own kids, and some people who have children on faith never do feel it. I think this was true of my mother. She went through the motions (most of the time) but consistently communicated that I was a burden and an embarrassment to her. I believe she would have been much happier had she been born in an age when it was socially acceptable not to have children. Who knows, if I had had a different sort of child, I might have been miserable, too.
And Ben is an adult now, able to make his own decisions about this and so much else. He already finds joy and connection in music, in his friends, and in romantic relationships. He may well decide that his life is full enough without adding kids to the mix, and I will accept that.
For myself, though, I am deeply grateful to have had the experience of parenting him. I would not trade a moment of it—even the heart-stopping running-toward-the-street ones.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading