The next 18 years begin with a small blond boy tucking a toy train in a green nylon backpack.
School starts tomorrow, the first day of preschool for my oldest boy. Already a loaded backpack waits in the hallway, filled with notebooks and markers. He's got show and tell the very first day, and not an hour ago he finally decided what he wanted to bring, a small brown steam locomotive that he's had practically since he was first able to say "train." Tomorrow he'll tuck it away in the cavernous depths of this olive-hued bag that's half his height and he will carry it out our front door.
He will think nothing of it; I'm not so fortunate.
As the zipper closes the bag around that train, I see the gaping maw of academic pursuit swallowing the blissful aimlessness of childhood. I see my son spending more than half his day without me, in the care of people I don't know. And with dusk arriving quicker each evening, I realize that in a matter of weeks, I will not even see him in daylight. And then years will speed by, the backpack will become a briefcase, or a suitcase, and he will carry it out our front door, gone to his own life, a child no longer.
I don't want this to devolve into maudlin sentiment; this is no Chapinesque moment of tearful regrets for a childhood squandered. Quite the opposite: it's the frightening unfamiliarity of separation anxiety, and the stunning realization that while he's already worked through it ages ago, I haven't even begun to deal with it.
When kids are little — really little — their world revolves around their parents. They want us in sight all the time. They wake in the middle of the night — hungry, yes, but also desperate for a glimpse of mommy or daddy and strong, loving arms to rock them and hold them until they again feel assured that they are not alone.
Early development types call this "bonding." They talk about how formative it is in the child's development. They don't say enough about how formative it is for the parent. Childless friends of new parents will notice immediately the cult-like transformation that has taken place, but all the talk of diaper contents and strained peas is just the outward manifestation of a deeper change: accepting that this small person is entirely reliant on you, right now, immediately and without relent.
It's devastating, to be honest, and I say this to terrify you, you who might be contemplating starting a family, or you, stupid enough to not use birth control. A CHILD IS NOT A THING TO BE DONE HALFWAY. Or, to quote that familiar wisdom, "Do. Or do not. THERE IS NO 'TRY'."
Because as strenuous as raising a child is, as taxing, exhausting and numbing as it is, requiring due diligence 24/7 and demanding you respond to crises you couldn't even begin to imagine back when you looked at those grainy ultrasound pictures, there are two things that are even harder.
The first is seeing your child die, and believe me when I say I ask God every day to ensure that does not happen to me because I do not honestly believe I could go on a single hour, let alone a lifetime, after that. I cannot fathom the levels of faith and endurance it requires for a parent to face that and persevere.
But the second, if pale by comparison, is letting your child go, something he is already prepared for — even eager for — by the time it happens. The first time you hear, "I can do it myself, Dad," something inside just falls away. Suddenly, there is something you needn't do for him, but more than that: he has put you in your place; you are unnecessary. The first string is cut, not cruelly, but it hurts nonetheless.
That's something I've had to struggle with this summer, as three months ago my employers told me in far more professional lingo, that there were many things I needn't do for them, and that I was unnecessary. I didn't mind entirely; I was relatively unhappy there anyhow, in a going-nowhere position. But still, having never been "downsized" before, I felt the shock that comes with a swift kick in the ego.
Rather than wallow in self-pity, however, I have poured myself into my freelance business, which has been more lucrative, more engaging and more fulfilling than in all of the previous eight years I've been running it. And while I still have feelers out for a "real" job, the idea of nurturing this thing that I've created from my own talent and know-how is gaining strength. Small wonder. I'm pretty sure I've bonded with it. I guess it's instinctive now, after bringing two boys into the world.
A recent British study reported that men my age — late 30s to early 40s — are the "most miserable" of all demographics. We're apparently a pretty dissatisfied lot. That, or all such men surveyed had just sent their first-born off to school for the first time that morning.
So I don't have a job. So my four-year-old will grab his bag and head out in the morning and come back in the evening in a student's mimicry of career, and all I can do is stand at the curb and wave goodbye as he trots across the asphalt of the schoolyard and disappears into the cavernous brick building that looks so, so big against his small, lanky frame.
But having no job means I can be standing right back there at 4 p.m. when he trots back out again. Mine will be the first arms around him to hug him in congratulations for making it his first day...and his second...and his seventy-first. And he will babble excitedly from the back seat of my car, telling me everything new that he's done, and I will feel the sting as he unknowingly cuts another string. And with each new accomplishment, I will tell him how proud I am.
Miserable? Oh, no. These are the best years of our lives.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
more about russ carr
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.24.07 @ 4:36a
Heartwarming, sweet, and a nice contrast between you and your little guy. Props, Russ.
8.24.07 @ 10:30a
The best years, yes. Cherish them. It dawned on me a week or so ago, for no obvious reason, that my son will be 18 in 8 months. 18!!! He can move out, he can vote, he can do any damn thing he wants and not need our permission anymore. The final string will be cut. I'm caught between terrified and giddy.
8.24.07 @ 3:31p
Two months ahead of you, Sloan. Oy.
I'm in denial.
8.25.07 @ 2:20p
Oh my, but this is incredible.
"this is no Chapinesque moment of tearful regrets for a childhood squandered."
Holy cow - three lines before you said that, that entire song played in my head.
You're such a good daddy.
8.27.07 @ 2:44p
Fortunately, it hasn't gone as fast as I thought and one does get to revisit the experience every year, reflect, and re-adjust.
I just sent my youngest to third grade, and my oldest (in a training bra of all things, although with any luck you won't have to deal with something like that) to fifth grade, and I still feel the same pangs. Have I done my job? Do they have everything they need for the new more challenging year ahead?
Fortunately, as they progress and become more independent, you will actually encounter more, and not less, opportunities to guide and nurture them as school and life gets more complex for them.
8.31.07 @ 12:57p
Reading this has made my day. I truly look forward to doing all that in the future.
9.1.07 @ 12:19a
If your kids are as smart and cool as you are Castro, they should be president. They got a lot of other peoples' crap to sweep up though...
9.3.07 @ 11:42p
I am trying to spend my days not thinking about it, or at least not develop a twitch or semi-permanent back pain. He's out in the world at least a bit. Does he know that we are more scared for him than he is? I love how you pack his lunch everyday. He loves how you make 'em. Now he's ready to take on the world, or drive a bus, or something like that.