Friday, August 31, 2007

Leaving Your Kid at the Fair

It's one of those nightmares that especially afflicts parents with younger children. The scenario plays something like this. You and your child (or children) are taking in a cultural, historical, or other kind of even that has drawn hundreds of people, in a location you are both unfamiliar with, engaging in activities that are outside of your normal daily routine. As a parent you shift your view for what seems like a nanosecond, and when you look to see where your child (or children) are, you discover to your immediate shock they are not within sight.

The sudden shock of that moment degenerates into a sense of terror and dread as anxious thoughts fill your mind. Was she abducted? Did she wander away accidentally or was she enticed away by a molester? Will he remember what to do in case he gets lost or become frantic with worry (as you are)?

For most parents this split-second series of mental gymnastics comes to a quick conclusion as we find our straying child, relieved that they are within eyesight once again. After the perfunctory lecture about how important it is to stay near us and not wander away in a crowd of strangers we continue our day together and all is well.

While we no longer have children that young (our youngest at the moment is eleven, and he is not these days one to wander off; in fact, he is often gripping our hand on the way), when I spend time with one of our semi-independent young adult sons I often feel like a similar response. It is no longer anxiety and usually not dread; it is more akin to wistful nostalgia, and it still feels strange to walk in your direction as he walks away in his direction.

It was that way yesterday when those of traveling to the South Dakota State Fair spent a few minutes with our seventeen-year-old son John. He has been living at a boy's ranch for the past year, doing quite well for himself, more stable there than he has been anywhere in his past, including our home, which is always a humbling prospect for a parent. We had the opportunity to see him show a horse, including a few moments before and after to chat with him. He is always glad to see us, and he has become respectful and responsible during those interactions. John, to his credit, has never blamed us for his behavior. It has never been our fault that his impulse and anger control are limited; he has always understood that it is his responsibility. John is not a blamer, nor is he a victim. He has challenges, but he recognizes them as his own, and has always expressed gratitude that we have adopted him, and he has always beenn proud to be one of our ten children. The big family thing to him has always felt right, and while he and his two birth sisters have always shared and maintained a special sense of connection, his other brothers have always been "his." Other than his issues (which at times have been rather significant), John has been a pleasure to parent because he loves us and expresses it. He has been one of our few kids not to disdain his adopted status or our parenting ability or his place in our family. He has always treasured these parts of his life.

Which is why it makes it so hard to walk away from him when the time comes. Yesterday we spent some time conversing together, took a few pictures and caught up on life details. We had hoped to spend some time with him walking around the fair, but his group's plans were different than he thought, and they were packing up (the boy's home where he resides breeds and trains work horses, which is why they were there yesterday) immediately after their showing to head back. Over the past few years with John in and out of the home he has developed a veneer of sorts so his affect is either more mature or more protective (I haven't been able to discern which), and he is more difficult to read these days. I suspect part of it is growing up, but much of it is growing up without parents or family in daily contact. It is one of the prices to pay in order for one's child to be safe to himself and others, and it comes at a high price tag.

To compare his experience in life with that of other sixteen and seventeen-year-old's is too difficult, so I often try not to. Most kids his age are still enjoying the carefree life of a high school sophomore or junior, spending time with friends, attending classes, working a part-time job, making plans for the future. John's life and future are more constricted than that; his options are fewer and his likelihood of success is less. So I have a sense of compassion for him and his situation. He spends little time worrying about or expressing reservations about his life, and I hope it is because he is more at ease about it than I am.

So we spent some time chatting yesterday, and then it was time to say goodbye. We hugged each other, said our goodbyes and left, John back to the work of packing up and we four to the task of walking through a few more buildings at the fair and then off to our car for the four hour plus ride back home. It is never easy for me to walk away from one of my children, even when it's our college-age son and the time for transition has come, there is always a pull in my heart that takes me back to other days. In those days we all left together. Those days have ceased, and we now go our separate ways.

There was a time when I believed it wouldn't be all that hard to let my kids go where they needed to go, so that I could go where I needed to go. I naively assumed that the emotions of those moments would somehow change. Over time the difficulty has lessened, but there is still that little twinge that reminds me of the connection we share in our hearts. I always have known intellectually that it's important for parents of nearly adult children to help them let go, but once again yesterday I was reminded that it really isn't that easy leaving your kid at the fair.

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