When I think about why people have children, I realize how little it should have to do with the future. If, before any children are conceived, we knew that our reward for raising them would be perhaps several phone calls a month, a very occasional visit, and the sense of having once been important in their lives, we might not do it. But if we realize that the rewards are given during the raising, we will calculate the cost differently. My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy that I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this. ~ from The Journal Keeper, by Phyllis Theroux
Right before my son's senior year in high school, my friend Pat gave me a framed reprint of the poem titled "Children Are Like Kites." You've probably seen it - the gist of it is that you spend years preparing children to "get off the ground." You run with them, patch them up when they're torn, pick them up off the ground countless times. You let the string out a bit at a time, until finally they're airborne. Finally, "the kite becomes more distant, and you know it won't be long before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that binds you together and it will soar as it was meant to soar - free, and alone."
Of course, by the time you get to this part of the poem, you're choking back tears. Even now, some 12 years later, I get teary eyed reading those last few words.
But then there's the final sentence:
Only then do you know that you have done your job.
I believe that's true. It's in the letting go that a parent really comes to know what they're made of. And if you've done your job well, when you read that very last line you'll dry your tears, stand up a little straighter, take a deep breath and move on.
Most of you know that my husband and I are only children, and in terms of feeling responsible for their parents' happiness, I think the burden on an only child is rather great. My parents and my husband's parents were as different as night and day in their child-rearing styles, but nevertheless, the outcome on each side was exactly the same. Both of us always felt the need to be perfect, and to do whatever it took to make our parents happy, even if that meant subsuming what we desired for our own lives.
So when we got married, we had an agreement - if/when we had children, we would not stand in their way, would not make them feel as if our lives depended on their constant presence, not make them feel guilty or worried about what we'd do without them.
In short, we'd let them break the kite string and soar.
We've tried really hard to do that, and I think we've succeeded pretty well. Our only son left home at age 18 to go to college in Florida, traveled more than halfway around the world on several occasions, met and married a young woman from a completely different culture. He's lived in Florida for the past 12 years, and is planning to move again - to Texas, this time, to embark upon another era in his life's journey.
As a matter of fact, sometimes I have to laugh at just how well we've succeeded in allowing him to soar. I'm sure his trajectory simply boggles the minds of our parents, as well as other more conservative folks in our families, who probably always wondered why in the world we let him do those things.
Make no mistake, there's nothing easy about this process. There's no magic pill you can take to stop missing your children, to keep your heart from aching when you're apart on birthdays and holidays, to prevent you from wondering what they're doing or how their day is going, if they're in a bad mood or on top of the world. I've always been deeply involved in my own mother's life (probably overly so), and I know that I will continue to become even more involved from now on as she draws nearer to the end of it, and it hurts sometimes to think I might never have that kind of relationship with my own child, that I may very well need to rely on the "kindness of strangers" to shepherd me through my later years.
But, as Phyllis Theroux says in the passage quoted above ~"My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy that I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this."
Watching those beautiful, strong, colorful kites waving proudly in the breeze is worth everything, and one of life's greatest experiences.
I wouldn't have missed it for the world.