Pieces from the Past: Kite Strings

“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 than 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 how-to-build-kites-topRight before my son’s senior year in high school, my friend gave me a framed reprint of the poem titled “Children Are Like Kites.” You may know 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. At last 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 war - free and alone."

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. 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 husbands parents were as different as night and day in their child-rearing styles and philosophies, but the outcome on each side was exactly the same. Both of us always felt the need to do whatever it took to make our parents happy, even if that might mean giving up something we desired for our own lives.

When we got married, we had a kind of unspoken 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 inspire guilt or worry about what we’d do without them.

We would let them break the kite string and soar.

We tried really hard to do that, and I think we succeeded pretty well - in fact, sometimes I laugh at just how well we succeeded. Our only son left home at 18 to attend school in Florida,  traveled halfway around the world on several occasions, then met and married a young woman from a completely different culture. He lived in Florida for 12 years before moving to Texas three years ago.  I’m sure our parents were stunned by his epic journey, and they probably wonder why in the world we let him do those things.

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 realize that I’ve always been overly involved in my own mother’s life, and because of circumstance, will become even more involved from now on as she draws closer to the end of it. Sometimes it hurts that I will probably never have that kind of relationship with my own child, that I will likely rely on the “kindness of strangers” to shepherd me through old age.

But on closer reflection, I realize my son’s fierce independence actually provides me with a kind of gift my parents couldn’t give me - it allows me to be responsible for my own life in a way their neediness never could. So I watch my son plan his future and take charge of his dreams, and I too learn how to soar.

Phyllis Theroux said it best in the passage I quoted at the start of this piece: My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy than I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this.

Watching a beautiful, strong, colorful kite waving proudly in the breeze is worth everything, and one of life’s greatest experiences.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.