I fantasize about it all year. The week when my kids go to Grandpa’s house five hours away, and my husband and I get rare, rapturous grown-up time. The luxury of sleeping late. The freedom of going to a movie on a whim. The enchanting silence and shocking simplicity of tidying up the house — and having it stay tidy. Day after day after day.
I crave it. I treasure it. I deserve it.
But when the time finally comes for our boys to drag their duffle bags out the door, I’m faced with a disturbing revelation: Greater than my need to be temporarily childless is my children’s need to be briefly, blissfully motherless.
You see, it turns out I’m a terrible shrew. A nagging control freak. A micro-managing ogress from the soggiest bog of Vex-and-Pester Swamp. As my kids prepare to leave, I chase them around the house like a cartoon mother, wagging a bony index finger and barking orders:
Did you pack your swimsuit? I know I already asked you, but last time you forgot it, so let’s be sure. How do you plan on practicing your drums without your drumsticks? Be sure to wear sunscreen every day. And shower once in a while, for goodness’ sake. Here’s a plastic bag for your laundry; please don’t make Grandpa pick up your dirty clothes every night.
Holy harpy! As much as I cherish my annual alone-time, those beleaguered boys must relish it all the more. A week of being out from under the wet blanket? Lock the car doors and step on the gas, Gramps! Faster! We can still hear her!
I really do enjoy it when they’re gone. But the act of letting them leave — letting someone else care for them, letting them (ack!) care for themselves — feels like ripping off a really big Band-Aid. Or not even a Band-Aid but one of those cheap imitations made of non-breathable plastic that yanks a patch of arm hair out when you peel it off. Like that. That’s exactly what it feels like.
The night before they leave, I sleep restlessly. I’m beset with irrational maternal anxiety. Was that a sneeze coming from the bedroom of our youngest? Is he getting sick? I’m the only one who can get him to take medicine. Will they all be miserable and (gulp) have to come home early?
I wonder if this is what it feels like when your kids leave home for good. You worry that you haven’t fully prepared them, that they lack the tools (swimsuit, drumsticks) and skills (hygiene! I beg you!) to be happy, healthy, and successful in the world. You worry that without these things, no one will like them.
One of the last things I said to my oldest son before he left was this loving dictum: “We’ve asked you three times to come to the breakfast table and you’re still playing Wii. Would you care to explain why that is?”
I never thought I’d be the kind of parent to badger my kids like that. I hate those people. Those are the kind of people whose children turn 18, bolt from home, and never look back.
Five hours later, I was still feeling guilty about my morning tirade when I got an email from my son. He had arrived, logged onto Grandpa’s computer, and typed this alone:
“i miss u already.”
For me, the hands-down hardest part of parenting is locating the sweet spot between becoming someone you don’t like, and allowing your kids to become someone you don’t like.
For this week, at least, I know exactly where that sweet spot is.
It’s five hours from here.