This week my family starts a new chapter, as our daughter moves to San Francisco for the second half of her gap year. The part of me that isn’t consumed with envy (spring in San Francisco!) or anxiety (my baby’s moving away!) is excited for her as she embarks on this new adventure. And for us, too, as we do. Our son will, at least for the next five months, learn what it’s like to be an only child. We’ll operate without our in-house babysitter, with fewer demands on the car, and with more space in the attic. We’ll renegotiate familiar patterns and probably establish some new ones.
It feels right that this is happening just as the semester gets back underway. My life has been governed by the rhythms of the academic year for so long that my children know what I mean when I say one of them was born during MLA, the other over summer break. They seem not to be too upset when it’s easier for me to measure their ages by when I got tenure than when they lost their first teeth. I don’t know what time of day either one was born (not to the minute, anyway), but I do know which MLA it was when Mariah came down with an ear infection on BART and there was no baby acetaminophen to be found on Nob Hill.
In a posting from the MLA convention last week Caroline Grant made a comment that’s stuck with me as I look over my to-do list for this week and find it consumed as much with preparations for Mariah’s departure as for my own upcoming semester: “Clearly, the sense that parenting is an intense time that eases after the children grow past infancy is a misperception that needs to be addressed.” Why is it so much harder to talk about parenting school age children and teens than it is to talk about infancy? I found it much easier to compartmentalize parenting and professing when my children were younger; these days, as my children look more and more like my students, as they grow and change, requiring less hands-on time but more intellectual engagement, I’m shifting back and forth all the time.
Next week, I’ll start to have a sense of what it’s like to parent from a distance. I’ve already resolved to bring my cellphone to class with me for the next few weeks, something I hadn’t done since Mariah was first in high school twenty miles away. But why, when she’s 3000 miles away and there’s little if anything I can do for her at that distance that will require immediacy? Will I become a “helicopter parent,” hovering just out of sight as my daughter moves out on her own? Who will call the other more frequently, Mariah or me? How will things change for Nick, who has never—unlike his older sister—been the focus of his parents’ undivided attention? We’ve got a great opportunity here for a slow transition to the empty nest (and I do mean slow, since Nick is seven years younger than Mariah). I’ll be taking notes on the transition, doing my best to help dispel that misperception.