Both of my kids are living away at college. They’re within driving distance, but I don’t visit often, both because I have my own stuff to do and because I don’t want to step on their toes.
When one of my infrequent visits is imminent, there’s a flurry of back-and-forth before I leave the house. Texts, phone calls, FaceTimes about things to gather, things they forgot, things they need.
The heavier coat since the weather is getting colder. Check.
Protein powder left over from the summer (the container is almost empty — does she know that?). Yes, and check.
It sounds like she has the sniffles. Dad throws some Vitamin C into the bag.
Bringing my kids their forgotten stuff reminds me of when they were little
It reminds me a bit of trying to get out of the house when they were babies and we were packing the car for a day trip. I’d check the diaper bag — backup onesie (the ugly one to be worn only in emergencies), diapers, wipes, rash cream, extra binkies, safe snacks, and EpiPens (both had food allergies). No matter how efficiently we packed, however, there always seemed to be something we didn’t think of.
I’m in her room looking for the jeans she wants when I see the weighted, heatable stuffed animal on her bed. When she’s home, she sits it in her lap when she has period cramps. My husband is downstairs talking to her on his phone. I call, “Ask her if she wants her microwaveable sloth.”
I hear him repeat, “Do you want your microwaveable sloth?” He knows exactly what I’m talking about — I think he bought it for her. He’s used to the random nonsequiturs and out-of-the-blue exchanges that have always dotted the landscape of our family life, so he doesn’t miss a beat.
As I wait for the response to echo back up the stairs (it’s affirmative), the phrase “microwaveable sloth” pings back and forth in my brain like a slow-motion Pong ball on a vintage box TV. Things you never imagined you’d hear yourself say.
I had no idea how all-consuming my new baby would be
I’m chuckling as I get into the car. During the hour-and-a-half drive to her campus, I think about myself in the misty past, proudly pregnant with my first child, looking forward to her birth with a bone-deep longing — but having no conception of how radically my emotional capacity is about to expand, how consumed I will be by the well-being of this new, fascinating little person.
The question I asked today sifts down, finding its place on the continuum of questions I’ve asked over the years, trying to ensure her safety and her happiness. Note that I said “trying to” ensure her safety and happiness. I’m a seasoned parent now, and I know we can ask the questions, but we don’t have any control over the answers.
We ask questions to keep our kids safe and happy
In the beginning, the questions are simple.
Do you want to wear red shoes or purple shoes? Did you put your lunch in your backpack?
Do you want me to push you on the swing?
As they get older, the questions get a little more fraught, and if you stare at them too long, you can see the unspoken fears hidden behind them.
Will your friend’s parents be home?
Did you tell a teacher?
Did you show your friends how to use your EpiPen if you have a reaction?
Sometimes, without warning, our kids spin away from us like satellites beyond the limitations we thought were secure. It’s only when they loop back to us, hurting or perhaps bewildered, that we realize we didn’t ask the right questions.
The questions we should be asking aren’t even on our radar
We understand with a jolt that the questions we should have been asking weren’t even on our radar. Those are the hard days; we pull each other through the fallout and absorb the fact that we can’t foresee every danger in our children’s futures.
Everything goes so fast. We lose another sliver of visibility into their private worlds every year.
Have you submitted your financial aid form? Does he speak to you respectfully?
Are you making smart decisions?
They’re born, they’re mobile, they’re driving, they’re…gone. All we can do is believe that the questions we persist in asking will somehow lead us in the right direction. All we can do is continue to ask and hope that the questions are the right ones.
And, of course, all we can do is find joy in delivering the microwaveable sloth when we get the chance.
More Great Reading: