My 17-year-old will be in college next year, and right now he and I are deep in the process of applications and school visits and talks that spring up suddenly at dinner or in the car and begin with, “Maybe I should think about…?” or “Have you considered…?” It’s a process that feels very much how I once heard a writer describe the process of writing: Like feeling your way, a foot or two at a time, along a very long and very dark tunnel; you can’t fathom where it ends up.
Sometimes it’s my son who starts the conversation, and sometimes I do. But either way, it’s clear that this is less a new topic than it is a thread of a conversation we’ve been having for many months, and probably years. It’s the same conversation every parent has first with a spouse and then later with the child himself, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I know I’ll miss him next year, and I know that will feel right. My friend Andy has a son who is several years older than mine, and when his went off to college Andy told me that little boys evolve into teenage boys so that you are more than happy to help them pack when the time comes.
In fact, I missed my son when he was away for six weeks this past summer. (I didn’t realize quite how much I missed him until suddenly there he was, grinning at me in the kitchen, and as I wrapped my arms around him I thought of that line in the poem by Walter Dean Myers, “Love that boy, like a rabbit loves to run.”)
When I told people then how he was loving the long hours he spent in the school’s clay studio and how he went back after dinner, and when I tell them now how he wants to study Ceramics in college, people often nod in a vague way about how wonderful that is before they ask something along the lines of, “So how’s he going to make a living at that?”
I can’t blame them, really. It’s crossed my mind a few times, as well. And about 25 years ago, it crossed the minds of my own parents, too, which is why my mother said to me, when I announced then that I wanted to be writer, that I might want to have a backup plan.
She wasn’t trying to be cruel; in fact, she just wanted me to have what she lacked: independence, and self-reliance, and the ability, when the guy you marry turns out to be a shit in a few key ways, to not to have to take it. It’s true that money can’t buy happiness. Yet ironically, I’ve noticed — and my mother certainly knew — that the lack of it can bring plenty of misery.
A few weeks ago my friend Paul Williams created something he called the Killer Phrase BINGO. We’re all familiar with the game BINGO: Fill out the game card, trying for five in a row to win and shout, “BINGO!” “One key reason new and potentially innovative ideas don’t get implemented at companies is because skeptics and scaredy cats kill ideas when they’re first proposed,” Paul wrote. “They use killer phrases like: ‘We’ve tried that before’ and ‘Yeah, but….’”
And so it goes in parenting, too. How many of the phrases do we use, as parents, because our own parents said them to us (here’s where I’ll admit to “Don’t make me turn this car around!”) or because we can’t bear to see our kids in pain (“Don’t make the same mistakes I did…”)? How much of our own parents do we bring to our own roles in the job, all over again?
Once, when my mother and I were having an uncharacteristically frank discussion about sex, she said to me, “Your generation didn’t invent sex, you know.” But didn’t we? Isn’t sex something we were left to puzzle through? Isn’t it up to every teenager to figure out, mostly on his or her own?
In that way, too, every generation thinks it invents parenting. Or, maybe, it’s every person who is reinvented as a parent: Sometimes, we are inspired by our own upbringing, and sometimes we exorcise it. And sometimes, as is the case with me, it’s a little of both.
In any case, Paul created this BINGO card for parents strictly for fun. But then again, you could use it for awareness, too—a reminder, of sorts, that we didn’t invent parenting, but we certainly can guide its evolution.