My youngest son just moved himself home from college. He came home, borrowed my car, drove back to school, loaded it up and returned home for the summer. He never asked for my help at any point and like so much of his childhood, I just let him go.
My oldest used to come home from college like a conquering hero. Our family encircled him waiting to hear every word about what life was like in college. When my youngest pulled up into our driveway only the dog and I were here to greet him. I felt pretty bad about that.
The story on youngest kids is that we have thrown in the metaphorical towel. Burned out by their older siblings, or just moving on in our own lives, we fail them by being less vigilant, less attentive and less involved. The research around youngest children is conflicting. Some argue that they are more agreeable, flexible and funnier. Others have suggested they are not quite as smart as the eldest child in the family.
Either way, it is probably time for me to set down some of the guilt I have been carrying around, since the first time I grabbed my youngest newborn out of his crib and buckled him into his car seat to pick up his brothers at school, until this week when he brought himself home from college.
Almost every parenting coin has another side, if you just look hard enough.
My youngest son always seemed to need me less. But he had his older brothers and at no point, from infancy to his 19-year-old self today, was I more fun or more interesting than those two.
I recorded my youngest’s babyhood in my mind knowing I would never travel that road again. Sure, I thought my eldest was a genius when he took his first step and thought my middle son a prodigy when he first kicked a ball, but the third time around I just enjoyed these things, willing myself to remember them forever.
When he got into trouble in elementary school for teaching other kids bad language, honestly, I laughed. I know his teachers wanted me to take this seriously, but I knew that the only difference between my kid and those not familiar with such ribald language was two older siblings. I told him to steer clear of oldest children, in their own way they were babies.
True to the cliché, I was more lax with some of the rules the third time around. It was as if I had challenged myself in the tough mom stakes and, with nothing left to prove, let him get away with a bit more. But more than that, I had come to see how little of my kid’s behavior I could control with my rules and how much more I could control with my words. I dictated less and we talked more. I explained what he had to lose with bad behavior and how acute my disappointment would be if he failed to regard others. Did it all work out? Of course not, he is a teenager. But it opened paths of communication that will, hopefully, remain in place forever.
I said yes more and no less. I had learned that “R” rated movies might be undesirable (hello, Austin Powers) but they were rarely ruinous. Candy rots teeth, so brush them. Late bedtimes make kids tired, that is why they invented naps. Teens need freedom or they will founder in college.
Yet, I had learned when to say no. I had no fear of being that killjoy parent with a kid who hated them for 24 hours. I had seen what happened to parents who had not mastered “no.”
When he was teen-surly, mouthing off and showing disrespect, I walked away. I had engaged with this behavior with two other sons and knew it passed. Does this sound like maturity on my part? It most certainly was not. I had just grown tired of the white-hot battle of parent and teen and prefered to curse him at a distance. Part of me knew he would emerge from the teen swamp, as I had done, as his brothers had done, and there was nothing to be gained by getting my shoes dirty wading in there with him.
When my youngest son left for college I cried the hardest. Convulsed with big wracking sobs, I had to pull over to the side of the highway after dropping him off last year. I don’t love him any more or less than his brothers, but his departure changed my life far more than theirs. The beginning of his life in college, meant the end of family life as I had known it for 22 years and that was something to be both rejoiced and mourned.