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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Parents, Kids, and the Nest*

L to R: Niki, Jamie, Robbie, Crystal, Easter 1988

Crystal, Jamie, Robbie, and Nikki, April 2010
A rare moment of joy on the sad day of Baby Zoe's funeral.

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, May 8, 2009
as "Moms, Dads Are Never Prepared for Empty Nest"

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

Adults fill an abundance of roles throughout our lives, but none more exhausting, exasperating, or more rewarding than being “Dad and Mom.”

My wife and I both wanted children, sharing that na├»ve dream of how easy it would be. Watching our parents, it seemed so easy. They always knew the right answer, always made the correct decision. There was nothing they hands couldn’t create or fix. They came to our games and concerts, making us feel special. And they were always that emotional safe harbor for scraped knees and bruised feelings.

The illusion that we could do as well didn’t last long. Kids are complicated little beings. They are always changing and growing. Being parents means working hard just to keep up. And it was always hard. I was barely an adult myself, trying to be a good example when I wasn’t completely sure what that was. I remember feeling confused and overwhelmed.

And worried. Always worried.

The hardest thing as a parent, is remembering that you’re always under observation. Everything you do, everything you say is recorded in the minds and hearts of your kids. In their eyes, if you do it or say it, then it must be okay for them as well.

Time is an investment. Every minute you spend with your children, teaching, guiding…and loving them pays long-term dividends. It's common knowledge that girls who don't have good relationships with their father will try to replace that with other males. That desperation often leads to abuse, unplanned pregnancies, endless heartache.

I was in the Navy and absent a lot. My long-suffering wife did most of the heavy lifting of raising them when I was gone. When I was home, I tried to do as much as I could, although I can guiltily admit that I could have done more. Now that they’re adults, I can proudly see their accomplishments and independence, although a lot of that success had more to do with them making their own good decisions.

Their independence was our goal. We felt that if we couldn’t give to the world a fully functional self-sustaining 18-year-old adult, then, as their parents, we had failed them and society as well.

Now, part of us is terribly proud of our four adults, but the other part wishes they still needed us, even just a little bit.

It’s a paradox, perhaps a cruel one. But parenting is like that, a nexus of joy and pain. The hardest pain is letting go. Some parents can’t tolerate that pain, and have 20-something children still in the home with no job, no future, and no inclination to seek either. The parents are fearful of pushing their kids out of the nest with no safety net to fend for themselves. And yet, the example of our own lives amply shows that the best way to learn survival, is by being forced to survive. Our job is producing adults. If we haven’t done that, we’ve crippled them.

I do understand the fear. You’ve invested your life in them. Now, as they establish their own independent lives, you’re afraid they won’t need you anymore. And your sole meaning and purpose in life vanishes.

That fear has a clinical identity: Empty-Nest Syndrome. It’s not only the children who have to learn to live alone. The parents as well have to face the emotional fallout of an empty and all-too-silent house.

My wife and I sought out activities and hobbies that would fill those many hours formerly devoted to our kids. For the most part, we were successful. Still, there were those evenings when the silence got to us, and our hearts ached for that telephone to ring. We do call them, but out of respect for their privacy and the freedom to grow their own families, we try to keep those intrusions to a minimum.

Being a parent is, as the oft-quoted phrase goes, “the hardest job you’ll ever love.” From the moment you first hold that squalling, red-faced newborn through graduation, marriage, careers, and children of their own, that sense of responsibility and worry knows no end. When they're out of sight, you have no influence over the conditions of their lives. And you feel even worse.

There was a man, still single at 40, who contracted a serious illness. His mother, in her late 60’s, at her own expense traveled cross-country to care for him. In his passing moments of lucidity, he expressed embarrassment at putting her in the position of taking care of him, yet again. Her reply:

“It’ll never matter how old you are, or how old I am. You will always be my baby boy.”

I believe that’s what they call “love.”

And the love of a real "Dad and Mom," never lets go.
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