There is a beautiful piece in yesterday’s New York Times travel section, an essay by House & Garden editor Dominique Browning on her attempt to forge a new relationship with her two young adult sons as they travel together by train across the country.
It is an apt piece for this time of year, the season of graduations and preparations for new leave-taking — on summer adventures, on gap-year journeys and to college, where Boychik is headed in September. It is a season of secular ceremonies, the high school graduation I will soon attend among them, with young people in caps and gowns wending their way toward adulthood. There ought to be a Jewish ritual to mark this liminal moment for our sons and daughters and, more to the point, for us.
But in the meantime, there is Browning’s essay, in which she gracefully writes about the challenge of meeting your young adult children as they are, so that you can still be in a relationship with them. A relationship different than the one marked by, as she puts it, “molding, scolding or holding,” which is generally the approach for the first 18-plus years of their lives.
The entry into adult childhood, with its complex alchemy of separation and attachment, is as fraught a time as the baby end of childhood. More so, for the parent, anyway. When he is 5, a child has no choice but to be with you. When he is 25, he is with you only by choice. As most of us don’t want to lose touch with our kids just when they become truly interesting people, we have to figure out how to navigate that perilous, post-adolescent territory.
A train journey seemed not only a perfect metaphor for the experience, but it also gave us time to sort out some of our new moves.
Out of the trip she has gained wisdom, and offers the reader excellent advice, including:
•Don’t say everything that pops into your brain.
•No more corrections of any sort.
•Do interesting things together. Do anything together.
•Listen and do nothing. Or do nothing and just listen.
I had to start thinking this way this past year, when Boychik had his first real relationship and was rarely home. Even when he was, he was constantly preoccupied with texting his girlfriend. Though I knew it was an appropriate moment for this change (and my husband and I liked his choice of a girlfriend), it was a sudden and difficult shift for me. Overnight, things seemed to change. And I missed him (I still haven’t found anyone else who lives at my house to watch “Saturday Night Live” with). Eventually things settled into a more normal rhythm. From the experience I learned that, as in toddlerhood, in adolescence they run away from you, the mother, and then toward you again. Away, then close again — each time in a different direction. You just hope and pray that you’ve taught them enough to know not to run into the street.
I know we will all miss Boychik come September, when we move him into his dorm. I also know people who have managed to maintain good, close relationships with their children through the transition from childhood into adulthood. It’s so different than in our day, when me and all my friends couldn’t wait to get the hell out of our family’s house, and took a long time to establish a new and sometimes improved relationship with our parents.
Boychik’s university isn’t terribly far from home (a 90-minute car ride or, as I describe it, far enough away from home for him and close enough for us). We will see each other, and he will be home during school breaks. Leaving for college today is hardly the end of the family relationship.