You, my sixteen-year-old son, are at a party with friends and without parents. There are two adults in attendance, I suppose, since two of his friends have past their eighteenth birthday, but that’s not quite the same as knowing a parental unit is on the scene. Okay, it’s nothing like it. You and your friends are good kids, friends for years with parents I know well, all growing into their mid- and later-teens with fairly reliable histories of good conduct and judgement. Mostly.
But, you see, I was sixteen once. The rule in my house was that parents had to be present where teens were present. As I said, I was sixteen once: a careful, cautious, and always safe sixteen, but, well, sixteen. And so, I’m not ready.
I know tonight there is really no cause to worry, although I ran through my not really concerns with you on the way to the party, reassuring myself while likely amusing or disturbing you. If you drink (and you shouldn’t drink), don’t drive (although you are still on a permit, so that can’t happen). If your driver drinks (and he wouldn’t), call me. I’ll come get you without hesitation and not discuss it all with you then, or probably not, or at least I won’t be mad at you for keeping yourself safe. Remember all you learned in OWL, that great sex ed and relationship class a few years back through church. Remember the parts about birth control, and about how nothing works as well as abstinence (which despite all you learned is what I really want you to practice for a very long time, like until I am ready to have grandchildren, which might happen in 20 years). Remember.
I’m never ready for the next stage that brings you to places that just might bring pain or fear or failure. I wasn’t ready when you weaned himself at eleven months. The books said a year, and, by gum, I was going to go a year. But trying to nurse a child who wants to run and see the world just doesn’t work, and ultimately, child-led weaning won out. You were ready to lead, and I had to follow. But I wasn’t ready.
I wasn’t any more ready when you went off to daycare at 14 months or three years later, when I sent you to Montessori each day, the only school experience you liked but, for the first two weeks, worried you to tears through the morning, the long wait before your afternoon session. “Why are you worried?” I asked. “Because I worry that I will worry when I am there,” you replied. How could I be ready for that?
I wasn’t ready when, at ten, I sent you to your father’s apartment, a place I’d never seen that embodied the shame and pain of my failed marriage. I cried after you left (and again while I write this note, while you celebrate freedom and youth and all that with friends — carefully, please). I wasn’t ready to not be your mom with your dad in the same house, although I was more than ready to leave the anger, fear, despair, and pain behind. And I was not ready — could never be ready — to see the pain in your eyes for the years that followed.
I wasn’t ready the fall you started homeschooling high school, the start of the end or of some new beginning. I’d prepared and planned and panicked, afraid neither of us were ready for the next four years. We weren’t. And when I realized that, I wasn’t ready for the fear I felt that I’d failed you nor the frustration that filled me as I watched you flounder. I wasn’t ready.
I wasn’t ready when I dropped you, at fifteen, off at the local university at the first of your two dual enrollment courses. You looked so young and so small compared to those around you, and I wasn’t ready to find out that perhaps you weren’t ready to be there. You were, mostly, and you found your way, mostly. But I wasn’t ready.
I wasn’t ready when you sat in the driver’s seat while I took the passenger’s seat, gripping the door handle and reaching for that brake that the driving instructors have. Lucky driving instructors. I wasn’t really ready to turn you over to the lucky driving instructors, worrying from that first day of Driver’s Ed about a year from now when no one is at your side in the car, when you must remember the rules I repeated tonight: If you drink, don’t drive. I could never be ready to lose a child.
Back to tonight. And a few hours back, I wasn’t ready to see you off to a parentless party, even the safest one I can imagine, if only on principle. Most of parenting is about letting go to children who are more capable than we feel they possibly could be and while trying to smile as we do it. It’s about trusting that I’ve raised you well, or as well as I know how, and that for the most part, the world is a safe place. It’s about knowing that you have to face fear and pain and failure on your own to grow further, and that as much as I want to protect you from fear and pain and failure, I can’t. And, to some degree, I shouldn’t try. If I buffered you from every possible misstep, you’d never leave your bed, which would be a mattress on the floor, since I’d hate to see you fall.
So be safe and responsible while you have fun. Laugh until you cry. Tell jokes. Talk with freedom. Listen to others. Eat like only teenagers can. Stoke the campfire (carefully, please), and tend to your friends. Be sixteen. I’m ready. Sort of.