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When the kids begin to leave home

For the past few years I’ve been meticulously scheming and planning for what I’ll do when the kids finally move away. It will be nice someday to dance in the kitchen in my PJs and sing off-key without being reminded that I’m old and silly. It sounds almost a thing of fantasy that I might once again be able to come and go as the whim strikes me -without having to worry about reporting to someone where I can be found.  I told my wife about my grand plan and she chuckled and informed me that it is a fantasy. Apparently once the kids are out of the house she intends to continue with her pesky habit of keeping track of my whereabouts. Gosh! You get lost in the woods two or three times and the wife suddenly starts to believe you can’t take care of yourself.  “That’s alright, babe.” I assured her. “You can come with me.” Damn straight.” She said. “Someone’s gotta’ read the compass.”

So I had to accept the sad fact that complete freedom is not within my grasp, but I do look forward to having less people relying on me each day. The life of a work-at-home dad requires me to be:

  • The chauffer
  • The chef
  • The gardener
  • The maintenance man
  • The homework monitor
  • The ATM
  • And so much more… Dads, you know what I’m talking about.

Having a bit more time for myself sounds kind of nice. Does that make me a bad dad? Don’t get me wrong; I love my kids and get a lot of joy from watching them grow and have the cool life experiences I enjoyed so much at their ages. I have no interest in getting rid of my kids, but my fantasy of a kid-less house has helped me through some challenging times when things weren’t going smoothly. It’s helped me smile when I missed out on things I wanted to do because I needed to be home to drive a kid to a dance or a friend’s party or dental appointment. It’s made it bearable when I notice how quickly my wallet has emptied of cash and filled with ATM receipts. I sometimes reflect back to a time when I’d jump in the car and drive off to catch a movie, without first considering if someone was relying on me to be at home in case I was needed. Kids are supposed to grow up and WANT to leave, right? We should want them to leave too…  After all, once we’ve done a good job with the birdies, shouldn’t we give them a gentle nudge out of the nest?  We can still guide them as they learn to fly alone, even if they aren’t still beside us, right?

My first test of this concept of ‘distance parenting’ came seven months ago when my oldest daughter went away to college. When she left she took nearly all of her bedroom contents. Walking past the open door to her room I paused for a moment. The moment turned to minutes, The room was bare aside from a small bookcase crammed with teen magazines. I stood in her doorway for a long time and it all began to sink in. She was gone and her room was an echoing reminder of her absence. That night I was overcome with anxiety and was unable to sleep. My mind was overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. It was overwhelming and I knew I wouldn’t be able to calm down until I sorted out the important issues that were distracting me. The future seemed so uncertain. I needed answers: “Will my desk fit where her bed used to be and still leave room for the file cabinet?” “Will the mini fridge overheat if I put it in her closet?” “Will someone on CraigsList trade me a foosball table for a stack of Teen Vogue and American Cheerleader magazines?” I lost a full-time daughter but I gained an office! My public school education allowed me just enough skills to perform the ‘kids-remaining-at-home’ equation: One down—two to go. So far, so good!  …Well, not so fast.

We’ve all heard “Out of sight, out of mind,” right? I’ve found this concept to be true with regard to things like:

  • High school friends
  • Dirty laundry
  • The three month old pudding behind the pickles in the fridge

However, I’ve found that it doesn’t apply much to the people you care the most about. As it turns out, maybe William Shakespeare was onto something when he jotted down “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,”     -while he waited for his modem to reboot. There’s no denying we can all think of examples of that concept at work in our lives. In my case–it seemed I liked having my girl around. Through all these years of waiting for freedom I’ve apparently become attached to my kids! I guess mom was right when she said “Wait until you have children of your own. Then you’ll understand.” My little girl emptied her room and left me with an office but I kinda’ missed our conversations.  I kinda’ missed our inside jokes… I kinda’ missed my daughter.

Last week we made an eight-hour drive north to visit our college student. She was eight when her mom and I got together, so I’ve been around for most of her life. Even though she’s not at home she does cross my mind throughout the week, but then again-all of my kids do. She is out of sight but never completely out of mind. Even though I do think about her, I think about her much less than if I were still making midnight trips to the family room to tell her to turn down that cheerleading movie she’s already seen 13 times. Sometimes I experience a pang of loneliness when I consider how far away she is. This usually subsides if I close the door to my office and dance around in my PJs while singing off-key—but it always comes back after a while. So, admitting defeat to my emotions, we packed up and made a trip north to visit.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years having casual conversations about nothing in particular with my kids. I’ve noticed that as the girls became teens they migrated between utter silence and being extremely chatty. The moments of intense conversation have usually been about what happened at school that day—or what someone said about someone else. The topics of unfairness seems especially important to teens. Evil-doers have usually been teachers, friends or rivals. Though many of these perceived injustices seemed trivial to me, they’re regarded as a very big deal at the moment the girls shared them. They’re usually forgotten by the next day—only to be replaced by a different and equally important injustice. Though I do watch for teachable moments, these conversations tend to be one-sided. Now I was hanging out with my college girl, giving her a ride to work and listening to the details of her life. I noticed while spending time with her that I was actively listening and interested as she related her tales of rude boys and broken hearts. I was enthralled and ENJOYING MYSELF. I genuinely missed my daughter.

It’s odd to me that no matter how old your kids get they are still your “kids.” I can remember my mom telling me, “You might be 24 but you’ll always be my baby.” Yeah, mom—I get it now. I see the same thing playing over in my life with my kids. My daughter is a young woman but she’s the same little girl I used to push in the swing and pillow fight with in the living room. She’s the precocious trouble maker that I punished for making her sister cry and the sweet-spirited fifth grader I took to the father-daughter dance. Life has a way of imparting the same wisdom on each new generation. Our kids may grow up and may move away but in time we realize that they inhabit a corner of our minds and inherit the acreage of our hearts.

Sweetheart, if you’re reading this you know I’m kidding. I already knew I missed you. I just didn’t realize how much.

-The Stepdad

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