When Your Boy Becomes A Man

Beagle called Husband with an announcement.  “I’m my own man now.”

Without missing a beat, Husband replied, “Oh, good.  I’ll send you the man-bills.”

Husband was referring to the hefty expenses that he and I shoulder for college attendance, an off-campus apartment, and a vehicle.

Beagle clarified that he qualified for man status because he acquired a dog. 

For countless reasons that don’t need to be spelled out for the mature reader, I was horrified.

When Husband and I recovered from our shock, we breathed a sigh of relief that Beagle is practicing fatherhood on a canine instead of a human baby.  Let’s be realistic, the news could have been entirely less welcome and the outcome, more life-altering.

I could have seen this coming.  Beagle had threatened to take the family dog with him to college and he insisted on caring for her when we travelled. He loves dogs and is adequately versed on basic pet care.  For what it’s worth, he has kept his fish alive for 10 years. (A fish that remains in my house due to its need for an unreasonably-sized tank.)  But a dog of one’s own at college is a different beast altogether.

These are the occurrences that give a parent the chance to make good on vows to support a child.  It’s easy to promise lifelong unconditional love when gazing at an innocent newborn who hasn’t crossed any lines.  But can we show up for our kid when circumstances and choices challenge us?

I don’t love my child only when he makes super-smart decisions.  And I don’t intend to bet against him.  But I will draw boundary lines and muster up the conviction to stand by them.  This is Beagle’s dog, not mine.  He will make his mistakes, discover his limitations, and hopefully experience the joy and satisfaction that comes from caring for another.   I’ll be at a distance, cheering him on, and watching as my boy unfolds into a man.

The Evolving College Student and the Reluctant Mother

EDThe honeymoon period is over for my college freshman. Roommates are no longer vested in showing only their best selves. Their patience for each other and for their cramped living quarters is wearing thin. Par for the course, I inform my daughter, but my advice is unsatisfying. She is the one who has to live with the stress.

During our rare visit with her, I notice a new nervous habit and reach out to steady her shaking leg. My people-pleasing first-born feels the weight of her own expectations for academics, sports, and social pressure. And she hasn’t yet discovered the impossibility of satisfying every demand.

Observing her in her college atmosphere feels like observing an animal in the wild. She is familiar enough, yet so very different from the girl who nervously parted from me with a crushing hug and tremulous voice just six months ago.

One senses a maturity-in-residence, not quite adult-like or permanent, but more of a stepping-up-to-the-plate persona. Having had to ‘rise to the occasion’ and exert independence in a variety of new, and sometimes terrifying situations, she radiates elevated self-esteem.

My observations of this transformation mystify me. I notice myself withdrawing into my own thoughts, stepping back a pace or two for fear of disturbing the natural order of things. Here, on my daughter’s turf, I am not in charge – not by a long shot. I know that I am welcome, but what is my role?

I dissect the situation like a wildlife researcher and get the strange feeling that I am actually part of the study – as if I am part of a documentary film narrated by Jane Goodall.

Look at how the baby monkey has adapted to its new environment, slipping into place in an unfamiliar social structure. Now watch how the mother monkey, when allowed to visit the baby, displays uncharacteristic behaviors. She offers ritualized mothering gestures but carefully takes cues from her baby about how much is acceptable. She appears to be out of sorts, almost neurotic, in this habitat. Notice how she follows the baby, never leading the way. She seems unable to take her eyes off the baby.

True, this. My every thought and attention is directed toward my daughter. I snap endless photos of her as I did when she was first born, trying to capture her essence. I anticipate pulling out my photo library for friends when I return home, boring them to tears with elementary stories of my daughter’s every expression. ‘In this photo, she was telling a joke. In this one, she was waving goodbye….’

My mind can hardly process the evolution of my college student, which is happening at warp speed.

We sit down to dinner at a restaurant of my daughter’s choosing and she remarks about her favorite items on the menu. She orders first then leads the conversation with questions for her father about his job. (What?!)

He takes the bait and they launch into a mutual exchange of questions and answers. This unusual conversation is followed by a debate on current politics. (I begin to feel dizzy.)

After a lively exchange, daughter turns her attention to me and asks, “Mom, how are you? Tell me about your life.”

By now I am close to fainting from shock.

“That’s it,” I think. “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”

Where are the dramatic teen stories? The complaints about teachers? I’m loaded with advice about these topics. Perhaps you’d like to know how to get a stain out of your favorite shirt? Oh, you figured it out? Good on you.

Adjusting to this new, poised version of my 18 year old is a challenge I hadn’t prepared for. Where my husband easily jumped aboard the speeding train that is our daughter, I had barely arrived at the station. In our absence, our little girl blossomed.

I am ecstatic, truly. But the expression on my face betrays melancholy, if not utter confusion. Disappointment in myself sets in, for I am unable to pull myself together to be the beacon of light I wish to be.

My daughter doesn’t seem to notice my struggle, or is too polite to mention it.
I absentmindedly wonder what else she isn’t saying. Is this a performance of sorts to reassure the nervous parent? My mind simply cannot settle on acceptance of what is unfolding before me.

The long ride home is silent, punctuated by tentative queries from Husband about my emotional well-being. ‘I’m fine,” I reply without conviction, then take to letter-writing by way of explanation to my daughter who may also be bewildered about my strange behavior.

Upon unpacking at home, I am surprised to find a letter stuffed into my bag by my daughter. In it, she details her own mixed feelings, offering an awareness of the major changes taking place within her.

‘I find it thrilling and scary to be taking control of my life, yet am pleased to feel confident in making decisions.’ she reveals.

The letter closes with a dose of gratitude and an affirmation of devotion to a family who is ‘never far from my mind and whose advice I still seek and appreciate.’

Cue the waterworks and the narrator:

“See how, despite the baby monkey’s independence, it checks in with the mother’s response for feedback and reassurance. The mother is placated and begins to assimilate her level of involvement accordingly. This mother-baby pair is learning how to individuate whilst honoring the bond between them.”

One day, this experience of separation, full of confusion and transformation, will all come together in a fond memory of how it felt to be a family in flux, emerging as it must into a new phase of life.

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