My kids spent the week of July 4th with their father at a little lakefront house I shared with them before my ex-husband and I got divorced. I was thinking of them every second they were gone; jumping off the deck, dipping their fishing poles in the lake after lunch, and taking late-night boat rides to watch the fireworks.
I was sad of course, it still feels unnatural for me to be away from my kids even though we’ve shared custody for over two years. But, I was cheery and upbeat in our text exchanges because this vacation is about them and their need to have fun and spend quality time with their father.
But, somehow, they knew.
There have been plenty of times during these trying teenage years when I’ve looked at my kids and thought, Do you even realize there are other people in the world beside yourselves?
I’ve wondered where I’ve gone wrong in the parenting process when they don’t say “thank you,” or hold the door for the person in front of them, or when they act like carrying on a conversation with me is pure torture.
As parents, we try, we “nag,” we try something different, and then we push back really hard because kids (especially teenagers) are so stubborn.
But then, one of them does something that makes us realize that despite the headaches and heartaches, our children are worth all the struggles, the frustrations, and all the nights when we are so crippled with anxiety we stare at the ticking clock because our eyes simply will not close.
Raising children is and has been the greatest honor of my life.
My son greeted me after his vacation by handing me a piece a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting from my favorite diner which is located a few miles down the road from their vacation spot. He’d kept that piece of cake safe for hours on the highway. He knows how much I’ve missed it there. And he remembers how much I adore a big hunk of that gloppy cake.
“You can have it Saturday,” he said. “I know that’s your cheat day.” All of this coming from a child who I thought was oblivious to my eating habits because he’s so in the zone with his own life.
Then, we reminisced about the first time we went to that diner, and the kids were ogling the dessert case the whole time–it’s self-serve and all the desserts are precut and sold in individual containers (some of the pieces are bigger than others).
That afternoon, I let them help themselves to a treat and it ended in an argument because they were shoving things around to help themselves to the largest pieces available. I was embarrassed and angry because there were people waiting patiently behind them to dive into the treasure chest of desserts, but my kids not only didn’t notice, they didn’t give a hoot. When I pointed it out to them, they just kept digging for an oversized ball of sugar.
I’m removed enough from the situation now to laugh about it with them, and looking back this wasn’t the end of the world as I proclaimed it to be that day as I dragged my bratty kids to the car and drove away feeling more shame than I could measure.
“I got you the biggest piece they had but no one noticed,” my son told me a few miles down the road after our reunion. Oh, I was so glad he did. Also, I’m beyond happy I wasn’t there to witness it.
There’s no one in this world who can make us feel like screaming out of frustration like our kids. But there will never be anyone who can make us love as hard as they can, either.
When my father-in-law was dying, he was asked if he had made his mark in the world. Before the friend who was asking the question could finish he said, “Yes. Four of them.” without opening his eyes.
He was talking about his children.
We can have our careers, our great loves, we can hike the Appalachian trail, complete marathons, open a bakery, make millions, and start charities that mean the world to us.
Then, there are our kids.
There is no other relationship like it. They are our life’s work. Raising them takes a certain kind of grit and no one realizes when they sign up for the gig. They grow up, sometimes to be larger and richer than you, but you will always see your baby when you look at them.
They strip us down, make us question ourselves every moment of every day and they teach us more than anyone else will about what’s important in this one-shot deal we call life.
And it’s the moments when we slow down for a freaking second to take it all in, like when one of them has snatched us the biggest piece of cake and kept it safe, that we are able to see what an honor it is to have them, to love them, to parent them.
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