About a year ago I wrote about panicking as my son Robert went off to college. He did fine, which was probably why I was panicking. It’s hard to give up being indispensable. You’re supposed to want that when you’re a parent: raise them up so they can fend for themselves. I started feeling useless the day I came home from work and saw him walking. People keep telling me, “Don’t worry, they’re your children. They’ll always need you.” I don’t know.
My parents certainly thought we always needed them. Most conversations with my mother started with, “I’m worried about,” followed by the name of my siblings and her solutions to the problems she was convinced they had. Their biggest problem was how deeply in denial they were about how badly they needed her. My father didn’t waste his time worrying. He went straight to telling us what to do because he knew better. It used to mystify me that they couldn’t accept that we had grown up and could make our own decisions.
It doesn’t mystify me any more. Bobby is home for the summer, more mature and independent than he was when he left, and yet I can’t stop second-guessing him. There’s no reason for it. He’s not perfect, but he has good ideas. He makes good decisions. Sometimes they’re different than the ones I would make. That’s when the trouble starts. It’s agony to let him go his own way. It seems there is a constant dialogue going on in my head about how he lives his life. It’s like those devil vs. angel arguments in cartoons, only mine are more like control freak vs. sane person:
“Midnight, and he’s still up with the computer games. That’s it. He’s ruined his life.”
“Relax. He walked the dogs, went to his job, played ultimate Frisbee and helped his mother buy food and cook dinner. He’s earned this.”
“Fine. He’s starting out exhausted. Do you want him to get sick, because that’s what you’re asking for by not saying anything? How’s that going to look on his resume? ‘Bedridden for three years because my father didn’t care enough to send me to bed.’”
Most of these arguments are silent. I’m the one who suffers the most. Bobby comments on the internal struggle he sees in my face, but I can usually stop myself from saying anything. The root problem, though, is how hard it is to let go and accept that your child’s decisions are his to make.
A few days ago, I lost my mind over a scheduling matter so trivial it’s embarrassing. I usually drive him to his job at a local restaurant. I have one sense of time for myself and another one for him. If it takes me 15 minutes to get someplace, I leave 16 minutes before I have to be there, in case there’s traffic. On the other hand, if my son has to be at the same place, and I’m driving, we need to leave a half hour or 45 minutes before he has to be there, so he can make a good impression. It makes sense if you think about it.
I’ve never communicated this expectation to Bobby. The only example I have ever given him is the one-minute margin of error method. That didn’t stop me from being annoyed on this day when he accepted an offer of breakfast from his mother an hour before his shift was supposed to start. Instant inner dialogue:
“Is he trying to get fired?”
“The restaurant is five minutes away. He eats like a vacuum cleaner. There’s plenty of time.”
“He doesn’t even have his uniform on yet.”
“It’s pants and a shirt. He’ll make it.”
I didn’t say anything because that would be wrong. So Carol made him eggs, Bobby ate and got dressed, and I kept silent, except for announcing the time every two minutes like a town crier. That was just information, not instructions.
I agreed to stop for coffee on the way to prove I could be as flexible as the next guy even when I’m nervous about the time. Bobby went inside, and I waited. And waited. Sitting in the car felt like I was living through a scene in a Hitchcock movie. My attention switched back and forth between envisioning different ways Bobby would get fired for being late and watching the numbers flip on the dashboard clock. Finally, I snapped and suffered an episode of temporary insanity.
First I stormed into the shop like a petulant adolescent and confronted him for taking so long, as if he had anything to do with it. How bad was I? The only two words I said were, “Uh, Bobby?” and a couple of customers edged away from me. Moments later, I impersonated Bobby in a text message to his supervisor and lied about the reasons “I” would be late. I honestly thought I was helping until I saw the look on Bobby’s face when he read the text. I ended up apologizing to him and coming clean with the supervisor.
After all these years of feeling superior to my parents, I find myself being as bad at letting go of my children as they were. God, I hate not being better than them.
Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at email@example.com.