This is a story about change, loss, and a baseball game that I didn’t go to. It’s about the painful pleasure of having children prepare to launch themselves into the world, severing ties and—in some sense—leaving you behind forever.
Our youngest daughter has entered her final year of high school and is busily applying to college. My wife and I aren’t new to launching children—our eldest son has finished his undergraduate degree and has started a family of his own, and our middle son just began his junior year of college. While each of these takeoffs had its own, unique emotional trajectory, an important similarity linked the two: at least one child remained behind for us to parent, so my attention turned fairly quickly from feelings of loss to focus on the two, and then the one, still harbored at home. I managed the melancholy that came with the knowledge that the era of basement rock-band rehearsals, raucous Simpsons and Family Guy TV marathons, and impromptu, lawn-lacerating lacrosse games and wrestling matches was coming to its inevitable close. But this next looming departure, this concluding flight, brings up different feelings.
Jessica is my only daughter, and we’re very close. Despite being of different genders, it seems to me that we’re “built” the same way emotionally. Our sons were quite a handful in their early years: the first radiated a relentless energy, which required constant, creative channeling, and the second struggled through some worrisome medical problems and several terrifying hospitalizations. So we were taken aback when our daughter entered the world with a sense of calm—an emotional balance and integrity that we simply didn’t anticipate. Overall, there was an ease to raising her that was wholly unfamiliar, yet profoundly gratifying. Today, she’s smart, funny, sensitive, talented, and, although I’m surely biased, quite beautiful. Of course, this doesn’t mean that she’s perfect—she performs a clever and sophisticated vanishing act when it’s time for housework, displays an irrational panic when confronted with a harmless stink bug, and inevitably has a flat tire in whichever family car she drives. Nevertheless, she’ll leave a significant void when she marches forth into her future.
Last night, Jessica went shopping with her mother and me for the clothes that she’ll need for her upcoming senior-year internship. Walking up and down the department-store aisles, I couldn’t help noticing the hundreds of dorm-room items for sale, realizing with a start that at this time next year, those are the shelves that we’ll be selecting from.
As we browsed, I watched with fascination and curiosity the customers clustering around those shelves—parents like me, fitting out their young-adult children who are on the verge of their own lives. I’ve personally been stumbling through the wilderness of family life for more than two decades now, and have treated countless families in my practice. Yet, each stage of development remains endlessly intriguing.