It started when Chelsea turned 16 and people said how excited I must be for her to drive. We were in the thick of a challenging adolescence and at the time I worked at the Arcata Eye newspaper, which meant I saw every CHP collision report come through the fax machine. The knowledge that cars were death machines permeated my every work day. Facing the emotional wallop of raising an angry teenager left me raw and on edge nightly. The idea of my child behind the wheel was not exciting – it was horrifying. That so many people imagined otherwise made me realize how incomprehensible one person’s life can sometimes be to others. How even such a common experience as raising kids does not always translate to having something in common with other parents. That the greatest difference between having kids or not is the amount of fear that lives lodged in your brain, throat, heart, gut.
Of course, I tend to worry. Not everyone does. Some people are born with, or cultivate, this trust that God, the universe or some other benevolent force will “watch out” for their children. I assume they sleep well at night. I’ve considered turning to religion if it would help alleviate my insomnia.
Now that Kaylee’s 18 and graduated from high school, and Nick’s launching into his senior year, Bobby and I get a lot of, “Hey, you’re almost done!” Which I understand – and certainly, some things are easier. I am mostly confident that none of my children will stick keys into an electrical socket or choke on grapes if they’re not cut carefully into halves. I’m even mostly confident they’ll go off into the world and thrive. But this assumption that they’re grown and therefore I have less to worry about confuses me.
I do not feel less worried.
What I do feel is more helpless – my friend describes the shift as, “You spend all these years as their manager and then they fire you. The best you can hope for is to be hired as a consultant.” There’s an accompanying awareness that this is it. These years were the time I had to do things right and make up for things I did wrong. It’s too late to fix my parenting mistakes, which is so unfair because I finally have enough experience to raise children.
I would have lost my temper less, for example. So little sleep, so much stress, often translated into me snapping at the kids above and beyond what could have been called a “reasonable” amount. I don’t know where more sleep would’ve come from, but maybe I could have found ways to offset some of life’s seemingly relentless pressures.
Lack of money, for example. If I could redo things, this would be a big one. Not that I would’ve traded having jobs that allowed me to spend the most time with my kids, but I would have had a far better grasp on managing my money. I would have liked to be one of those people who managed to save a shocking amount of cash while working two waitressing jobs and never letting her kids go without. (I would still like to be one of those people who manages to save a shocking amount of cash.) You could’ve read about me in O magazine. I would’ve maintained a money tips website for several years, but decided to retire once all the kids were grown. Bobby and I would be planning our Costa Rican lifestyle about now.
(Note use of humor as a coping mechanism. I’m still trying to figure out the path connecting my daily actions to my dreams.)
The other, biggest, thing I’d fix is, I would’ve addressed and resolved the conflicts between Bobby and I sooner and more often. Becoming a mom, wife and adult simultaneously wasn’t easy; I was 20 when Chelsea was born, 21 when Bobby and I finally moved into the same place, 22 when we married. While I strongly reject all notions that only older, well-off women should have kids, I can’t deny being young and broke is inherently more challenging.
I was lucky – Bobby’s commitment to our family has never wavered – but being in love isn’t the same as being prepared. And I’m lousy at conflict, preferring to let things build up until something triggers a total freak out. I’d rather flee than fight. A lot of years were wasted in unnecessary unhappiness because I didn’t know how to fix what ailed us and was intimidated by the hard work and seeming impossibility of finding a solution. We still created many moments of joy with the children, but my dream of home always being a haven didn’t survive intact. I regret that. I know all families have their drama, but I wish I’d known how to spare mine from the amount of dysfunction I allowed to happen.
(This is the part where I note that if one compares dysfunction in families, we’re not too far off from the norm. I do not mean to imply otherwise. I’m only saying some things could’ve been better and I wish I’d been able and willing to make the changes then.)
Fortunately, none of the damage has been irreparable. Yet. But our children are always our children and with the pride and relief their independence brings comes whole new forms of heartache. The world may not be nice to them. In fact, I know it’s indifferent. Bad things happen all the time. But good stuff, too! I may not trust in the universe, but I muster faith that they’ll create their place in it. And hope the place they make brings them more happiness than sorrow.
I’m speaking in generalities now, which pains me as a writer even if some comfort is offered my mothering side.
Maybe I was wrong earlier. Maybe I’ll never have enough experience to have this raising kids thing figured out.