I really hate countdowns. “3-2-1-liftoff.” I understand, it's a necessary part of getting a rocket off the surface of a planet, or of dropping a giant sequin-covered ball precisely at midnight, but I hate feeling like the countdown is a mechanism for building anticipation.
In the case of watching one's children leave the nest, there is no pleasure in the anticipation. And yet, for me – sadly – that countdown is on.
The reality of parenting hits you with great force the moment your child arrives in your life. It's completely overwhelming. And – in my experience – it is the beginning of a total transformation of who you are. On the CV of your true identity there is a sudden shift of everything down, and in big letters at the top appears one of the following words: MOM or DAD.
Suddenly, you must grow out of whatever pre-parenthood mental state of adolescence you had been living in and become completely dedicated to the care, nurture and protection of your child. And at the same time, you get to experience the wild joy of childhood all over again through your kids. It's a hell of a ride.
And you go forth and parent, you try to live up to whatever expectations you’ve set for yourself and your kids, until one day, you find yourself no longer looking down at a bright-eyed little child, but looking across at a terrifyingly grown-up-looking young adult. And you soon realize, that the You who you became in the distant moment when your child first arrived, the one that didn't need a first name or last name, but just answered to “Dad” or “Mom”… well, that person's days are numbered.
I remember the process of applying to college. I don't recall my parents having much to say about things, though they were supportive and provided guidance. The way I remember it now is, it was the watershed moment where I became the person who made choices and took responsibility – sometimes I wasn't very realistic about that part, I now realize – for the course of my life. The decision to apply, and where to apply to college was when I first made real decisions that led to my life away from the nest, and eventually to building my own nest. It was a fantastic time in my life.
And I'm now having those conversations about college with my eldest. And I'm acutely aware of how this is the beginning of the emptying of the nest.
At this moment, more than at any other time in my life as a Dad, I wish I had an advisor, or better yet, a whole board of advisors to tell me how I'm doing and give me advice on how to do better. I've never felt that as a parent before. When they were hungry, or tired, or melting-down in public, I somehow always figured it out without having to consult the oracle.
When they tripped, or fell climbing a tree, I just picked them up and brushed them off, and told them it would be OK. Or I took them to the ER and held their hand while a doctor stitched them up, and I told them it would be OK.
Who will hold their hand and tell them it will be OK when they grow up and move away?
I'm sure I'll always be “Dad,” even after the kids are gone and the posters on their walls start to curl and fade in their absence. But I also know that it will never be the same.
For me the process is just beginning. Both my kids are still at home. It will be five years before my nest is really empty. See, what I just did there? I'm in the countdown. I'm measuring the time left.
When the ride started, almost 18 years ago, I had no idea how wild a ride it would be. Now I don't want it to end. I want more time, and I don't want to have to countdown to the day when the top of my CV doesn't say DAD in bold, all-cap letters.