Saturday, March 29, 2014

What to Expect When You're No Longer Expecting

One problem, among others, with professionalizing parenthood is that all its full-time employees are bound, after eighteen or so years, for unemployment. Today we approach parenting as if it's yet another school subject in which we might earn an A, if we apply ourselves with seriousness of purpose. Doubtless this is because many of us have chosen parenting instead of that high-powered career we once assumed to be our destiny.

But parenthood is not a profession and never was. It is, at most, a condition in which we live for a protracted but finite period. And while we may speak of good parenting versus bad parenting, I don't think we can or should attempt to judge our performance as parents with ever finer metrics of success or failure. In parenting there are variables entirely out of our control: of course these variables are our children themselves, with their own temperaments and trajectories, their own wishes, fears, strengths, and limitations.

As I live through the final years of parenting, I begin to suspect that this generation of parents is wholly unprepared for what comes next. We are so caught up in the day-to-day of it all that we forget to wonder how we will fill the hours once our children are out of the house. And if we do consider those hours, it is with na├»ve eyes. We think we long for that time. Will we really? 

We also fail to set aside a thought or two for the adjustments our marital relationship will require when not buffered or buffeted by the demands of children. The cartoon depicting husband and wife staring at each other in shock and alarm after they've waved goodbye to their son in the parking lot of his college dormitory? "What now?" Not far off the mark, that cartoon.

Obviously our children do not cease being our children once they stop living with us. But tides will shift. To deny the fact would be foolish and might also set us up for emotional distress on a scale we hadn't thought to anticipate.

Remember those first few blurry weeks of parenthood? When the world seemed turned upside down and shaken once or twice for good measure? Why wouldn't we expect the climb out of full-time parenting to be just as jarring? 


De said...

Except we get a bit more support (if we're lucky) with the infants.

Perhaps we wouldn't be so inclined to equate parenting with a career if there were more opportunities for middle-aged, college-educated women re-entering the work force.

And I'll say no more, as I'm liable to rant now.

Patois42 said...

I am anticipating it as being quite jarring, indeed! I heard an interview that Terry Gross did with Jennifer Senior about her book "All Joy and No Fun." She talked about how research shows mothers have an easier time with the empty nest than fathers do, likely because mothers play the bad cop so it's almost a relief when you get through the teen years. I think you and I are blessed to have teens who are "easy." I think we'll have an even harder time because of that. But, for now, I'm going to just cherish this time.

Sarah said...

De: Agreed.

Patois42: Yes, you are right, I think, about the difficulty of parenting teens setting the stage for an easier letting go. You are also right about our own teens being relatively easy (although the jury's still out on my second), which would logically make the letting go not quite as easy.

Sarah said...

PS to De: You are always free to rant here.

juststormy said...

At first, it's frightening, but then it's quite liberating. You can cook what you want, when you want. Laundry decreases. Cleaning decreases. Less chaos, tension, parenting. It was harder on my husband than it was on me. But, then it's nice when they want to come visit and do. When they call to talk on their own. When they come home for summer. When you see that you raised them to be great adults just by what the do. It's hard for me adjusting when he comes home as I have grown used to the quieter times, but I do. Then I miss him when he leaves. It's most rewarding just seeing him grown. They still rotate around you, like little planets, and it's nice to see them shine. :)

Lori said...

I'm in the home stretch with my two boys…one is in college, the other will be (hopefully) in two more years. When the first one went, the feeling was more about "I did it!" He's independent, was glad to be out of the house (a healthy attitude, if you ask me) and we hardly hear from him (another confirmation of his independence) so although I miss him terribly, I feel so much gratification that he is on his way to becoming a productive citizen, finding his way in the world, and eventually appreciating all the parenting that made him who he is.

Nicole said...


I was just thinking about how fast the boys are growing and what will I do then? Well, I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Neil said...

And I think you might be fooling yourself with the assumption that your parenting is going to end the minute they take off to college. It's just the beginning of book two.