Tuesday, June 10, 2008

One Good Thing

By Melanie Lynne Hauser

My oldest son’s first year of college is wrapping up. It’s been an eventful year for all of us. He got a little smarter, I got a lot poorer. And older, because nothing makes you feel ancient like having to tell people you have a child in college. Suddenly you ARE your parents, because now you’re the age they were when you started really paying attention to them and thinking of them as people. And so it is with your children.

It’s been a good year, too. A year in which we’ve seen him come into his own; high school was not the best time of his life. But he has really found his fit at this school, in this city. He loves Chicago, loves living in the city and being panhandled by strangers and once even had a homeless man offer to sell him his spit – the homeless man’s, not my son’s – and he’s just loved every minute of it.

(And he’s learned that if you give a homeless man a dollar and tell him to keep the spit, he might ignore you and give it to you anyway. Which is a good enough reason to take another route home from the subway next time.)

Anyway. Even as the year is ending, he’s planning for next fall in a big way, by deciding to move out of the dorm and into his own studio apartment. Alone. In the big city.

You’d think my mother’s heart would beat with fear, but you would be wrong. It does beat a little faster, though, and I’m almost ashamed to reveal the reason. But of course I will, because I’m a blogger and bloggers are constitutionally unable to keep things to themselves. So OK, I’ll cop to it:

I’m envious. Of my son. Because he’s living the life I should have lived, only I was too stupid/ignorant/scared – pick an adjective – to do it, when I was his age. And seeing him so confident, so smart, so unafraid is both amazing – because after all, I’m taking some of the credit for it! – and heartbreaking. Because he knows another – a much bigger – world than I was allowed to know at his age. And it makes me a little bitter.

I’m going to go ahead and shoulder the largest part of the blame by stating, up front, that I was a very persuadable person when I was eighteen, nineteen. I lived in a time, in a place, where you grew up, went to a sensible college in the middle of a cornfield, studied something practical, went back to the place where you grew up and married someone of like background, and settled into a cul-de-sac house that you could afford due to the sensible, reliable nature of your chosen career.

People, in those days – particularly people with parents like mine; good people, but afraid of the larger world, afraid of taking risks – did not just run off to the city. We - or at least, I - didn’t even know colleges existed in places like Chicago and New York. Why, college towns were Bloomington, Champaign, Lafayette, Terre Haute. You went there to study business or elementary education or something sensible.

You did not hightail it off to the big city to live in a garret and try to be an actress, as I so desperately desired at the time. Or so I was told by everyone who counted – i.e., the people who would be paying for all that.

I admit it, I was weak. And young, and impressionable, and the tiniest bit afraid. So I absorbed their fear, and bowed to it, and ended up washing out of cornfield college and trying to cobble together a Midwestern version of life in the big city, living in cheap apartments and immersing myself in what passed for an art scene, but you know, it wasn’t quite the same. The rats were just too small. And happy.

But then I got married and had children and while I may not have been the best mother, there is one thing I know I did right. And that is, I told my sons, over and over, that they should follow their dreams, their passions. I was able to show them a huge world of opportunity – big city opportunity, as well as cornfield opportunity – and constantly urged them to find out what they liked to do, then go off and study that. Wherever they want. However they want.

And that’s what my older son is doing. He loves to draw, so he’s studying animation. When I hear some of my relatives murmur that he might want to minor in business just as a safety net, I take him aside and tell him these relatives don’t know what they’re talking about. I will not let my son absorb their fear.

But I do ache, just a little, as I allow him to tour me around the neighborhood he’s picked out – complete with its own homeless man with spit to sell – and my breath catches in longing as he shows me the rats in the alley behind his apartment building, and I just wish, so much, that they could be my rats, too.

I never tell him this, of course. Well, OK, sometimes I do. But I try not to burden him with the dreams I never had the courage to reach for.

Instead, I cheer as he pursues his own dreams. I allow him not to worry about being sensible and safe because there’s time enough to worry about that.

But he won’t be eighteen, nineteen, and living, gloriously, in a ratty studio apartment just above a noisy El station ever again.

And he won’t ever have to look back and wish he had.

That’s one good thing I’ve done.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, Mel, I hear you. And you've done a great job and you do get to live a little vicariously through him, don't you? My son is off this morning hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail with his two best college buddies. Not that I wanted to do that--but I wanted to want to. And later this summer he's headed 2000 miles west, to a city he thinks he want to live in and to hopefully find his first job in his chosen field. Terrifying and exciting. And something I never did. But, I'm driving him out there to give it a shot.

HRH said...

So true. It is amazing how this generation doesn't seem to have the same overwhelmingly fright that ours did. Good for your son and good for you for raising him that way!

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

Every generation gets a little bit better at this parenting thing, I hope! Maybe in a thousand years, we'll have it down pat.

Betsy Bird said...

Isn't it interesting how some of the best things we do as parents we do as a reaction to the not-so-great things our parents did, like transmitting fear. I think parents today are more willing to look critically at what they learned from their own parents rather than just blindly pass beliefs and practices on because "that's the way it's done." Congratulations on raising a brave son and for being sufficiently in touch with your own "stuff" that you realize you're envious.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

That's a good point, Betsy. I've tried to articulate this to my parents before but I don't know a way to do it without it being hurtful. But it's absolutely true.

I also think, though, that in our parents' defense, they really did have a much harder time of it - my parents grew up in the Depression/WWII years - and so really didn't understand what it was like to be a teenager. My father had to support his family before he was out of his teens; he had no leisure time. So he didn't have the luxury that his own hard work allowed his children - and never really understood what a typical teenager was like.

I think that our generation really does remember those years, though, and how we wish we'd been treated, and really strives to treat our own teens differently. Although sometimes this can devolve into the whole "trying to be a friend, not a parent" trap that some of our peers fall into, which isn't any good, either.

Update - son signed his lease today, the apartment is his (or rather, ours, as financially, we're really the ones responsible, just as we were with his dorm. The cost really isn't any different, which is why this is happening.). Anyway, he's thrilled to death at getting his own 13 X 9 closet (with a tiny kitchenette) in the city!

Double Update - longest comment ever. Sorry!

Kalynne Pudner said...

Well, er, I did something like that (Jenny knows, ha): ran off to Boston as soon as I graduated HS as a 17-year old, lived for a year as a musician and member of the corps de ballet, mostly on canned peas and popcorn. No rats (thank God!) but lots of roaches. And old guys making suggestions that I was too naive to comprehend.

Some of my kids take my experience with dangerous living as a challenge they need to surpass. Others (like my first-year collegiate, who couldn't stand in Milwaukee the things yours loved about Chicago) could end up staying home well into middle age.

My conclusion? It doesn't really matter what we did at their age; each child will do his/her own thing. We can be proud and live a little vicariously (like you, Melanie; kudos), or we can worry and moan. Or -- my own personal approach -- just scratch our heads in befuddlement.