(A version of this essay appeared in the November 2010 issue of MORE magazine.)
Last November, my younger child, my son, celebrated his twentieth birthday on the rooftop of the bar and restaurant where he worked in Siem Reap, Cambodia. At which point, I became, officially, a mother of grown children--not just because he turned twenty, but because it happened halfway around the world on a trip he had dreamed up and executed entirely on his own.
There is a lot to love about having grown children. Near the top of my own list is that since neither of mine is pregnant, it will be many years before I have to watch a Disney movie again. (Yes, I hear that Up was quite good, but as far as I'm concerned, Disney peaked with Pinocchio. If you get a chance, check out the hand-painted backgrounds of Geppetto's workshop.)
And speaking of movies, it turns out that now, in their twenties, my children have developed impeccable taste. They are my trusty scouts in the world of popular culture, and this includes music, books, and YouTube videos as well. (Have you seen the baby tearing the paper in half and falling over with laughter?) My husband and I live in rural Vermont, but thanks to our kids and the Internet, we have the best of both worlds, snow-covered stretches of open meadow and hot tips for iTunes downloads.
Then there are all the things I no longer have to endure: bake sales, sick days, head lice, sleepovers, Halloween, pasta with meat sauce (three times a week), wildly unpleasant 7 a.m. arguments about the nutritional function of breakfast, pretending to read until 1 a.m. while listening for footsteps on the front porch, driving them everywhere, them driving themselves everywhere, phone calls after midnight, SAT prep.
But at the very top of the list, the thing I love most about having grown children is that they are so clearly becoming who they are, and I am finally able to stand back and watch that happen. For years I imagined it was my job to mold these little lumps of clay into people who could arrive at their college interviews without food on their clothes. Now that the mission has been accomplished, I can see that my children are, to a large degree, who they have always been, those small three-dimensional people I was just too busy, and too worried, to fully comprehend.
When I was pregnant with my son, I went for a sonogram. After a few minutes of chasing him around the womb with the ice-cold magic wand, the tech said, "Is he always like this?"
"Like what?" I asked.
"I can't get a picture of him because he won't stop moving."
He crawled when he was five months old and I spent hours racing after him. Once he started walking, he headed off into the neighbors' yards, often shedding his clothes as he went. Following the trail of miniature shorts and socks, I would find him naked, chatting (in his 18-month-old vernacular--What that? What that? What that?) with our lovely older neighbor, a grandmother many times over, a woman unperturbed by his penchant for peeing into her tulip bed.
His unrelenting restlessness got him into small scrapes and great adventures and caused his parents years of sleepless nights. I worried that he couldn't sit still, wouldn't listen, didn't pay attention. I became convinced he would never finish his college applications on time, or be able to sit through the grueling exams required these days. But he completed them all and sailed off to college, happy to be on the move. And he has remained on the move ever since.
That is the same young man who just celebrated his twentieth birthday in Cambodia. He arrived home five days before Christmas, full of tales from his travels and reflections on expatriate communities, Hemingway, and the astonishing kindness of the Khmer people, which is something I would never have known if he hadn't told me and, given their history, seems like a miracle.
In so many ways, my children are who they were when they arrived. "Your children are not your children," writes Khalil Gibran. "They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself." Despite those nine long months of gestation (or, for others, the months of waiting for the adoption to be finalized), despite the layette shopping and 3 a.m. feedings and endless pacing and back-patting and rocking and bleary-voiced singing, despite the blue eyes that belong to my father and the graceful hands that belong to my mother, the notion that my children belong to me is dangerously benighted. My husband and I may have been their path into this world, but once they are here, they become their own people, shaped by the force of life's longing to be exactly what it is. And now, all these years later, I am finally getting to see the forms that longing takes in my children.
On the other hand, the crucial corollary to this insight that our children become who they always were is the simple truth that they will always, at some point, surprise us.
Our first child was our home girl. When we took her to large parties of kids and adults, she often ended up sitting in her father's lap at the grown-up table. I worried that she was too shy. Go play with your friends, I would say. They're not my friends, she would answer, and settle in for a good long listen. In the car on our way home, she would comment in great detail on the adult conversation and its societal implications.
As she got older, her own dinner table stories about school contained emotional shadings rivaled only by the later novels of Henry James. And by the end of a full week of these intense encounters, she might even turn down an invitation to a sleepover in order to stay in her room and read, to eat dinner with the family, to watch a movie with her little brother.
She grew into a lover of Mary Oliver poems and Rothko paintings, a reader and thinker who became fascinated by the writings of Walter Benjamin. We figured her for the dreamy artist type. We thought we knew her pretty well.
Then, during the summer after her sophomore year in college, she interned at the Boston Police Department, coordinating access to resources for youthful offenders reentering society. And now, five years later, after coordinating the Obama campaign in Alexandria, Virginia, she has ended up 3,000 miles away from our home, in a demanding graduate program, with a focus on international human rights. Meanwhile our peripatetic son has settled twenty miles away from our house in Vermont--that is, until he starts his 2,000-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Looking back, I'm sorry I didn't spend more time just looking, watching to see what each of them did when I wasn't propelling them toward the front door or away from the television. There was a lot in the way--team tryouts and application deadlines and pet vaccinations--as well as my own strident fears about what my children needed to do and master, and the schedule on which they needed to finish their mastery, in order to be fine, in order to be safe. When all along, on some level, what I needed to do was stand still and discover what forms those lives yearned to take. My fear got in the way. And oh, yeah, the head lice.
Recently, I was interviewing a friend and healer for a book on which I'm working, and we got onto the topic of attention, specifically, the role attention plays in the process of healing. The next time I saw my friend, he handed me this quotation from Carl Rogers, one of the most important figures in psychotherapy, the guy who developed the notion of client-centered therapy (though the mind balks at what other form therapy might take): "Acceptance, empathy, and unconditional positive regard are necessary and sufficient conditions for human growth."
Personally, I have never entirely understood the term unconditional when attached to human beings. It's never made sense to me to ask us to do something we simply can't do. I will always think my son looks better with longer hair.
But I was moved by this notion of positive regard, which implies the steady gaze of attention without judgment. Had I seen my children more clearly, might I have worried less? Might I have understood that my son's tendency to "move about in his seat and chat with his neighbors" (a quote from one of his teachers who shared my worries) would lead to world adventures? Might I have been less ready to define my daughter as the dreamy, sensitive child? Might I have discovered--in her attunement to the well-being of others and her penchant for solitude and reflection--the compassion and tensile strength that carries her through her current schedule of all-day classes, all-night study sessions, and vigorous debate?
In the end, I have to admit that there is one thing I do not like about having grown children. They are gone, and though they come back and bring their friends and ideas and movies and music and books, mostly the house is very quiet, the dog is a little older and sadder, and there is a space in my heart that was once so filled with bake sales and sick days that I didn't know it was there until it, too, emptied out and got very quiet and a little older and sadder.
Now that I have had a chance to see my daughter and son more clearly, I would like to look at them more often. Our children are not our children, says Gibran. And what better proof is there than the fact that they grow up and go away? My chance to study them at the kitchen table--my son finishing immediately and eager to get down, my daughter telling a detailed story about an interaction at school that involved many layers of feelings on the part of many people--is gone. I'm not saying I blew it. Life's longing for itself has found two exquisite forms in my children, through grace and good fortune and surely, to some degree, through their parent's efforts to love and provide for them. But if such a thing were possible, I would linger at that kitchen table longer, less worried about how much pasta my skinny boy had actually eaten and how intensely my girl took the world to heart.
I must be content with glimpses of my grown children, with rich conversations about expatriates and human rights and iTune downloads, around a table where we linger, at last, my son happy to stay in his chair, my daughter lighthearted in her reporting of the grueling schedule she currently keeps. For life goes not backward, Gibran warns us, nor tarries with yesterday.