Tonight, our youngest child will walk across a stage and receive his high school diploma, entering a new season of life for himself while simultaneously bringing to an end yet another season of life for his apparently aging parents. Neither of these is officially true, as despite having checked off the requirements for graduation, Jude will be returning to high school, like his sister before him, for a “victory lap” next fall. But the fact that his exit from this stage of life may not be official doesn’t take away from the significance of tonight’s ceremony for either our son or his parents.
I’ve been thinking about the word ‘commencement,’ which, according to the tickets tucked in an envelope by our front door, is what this ceremony is called. The word means a start, or a beginning, and I suppose that makes sense as the graduates are being symbolically launched into a new stage of their lives. But then again, I’m not sure you can ever pinpoint a beginning with that kind of accuracy. “And…now adulthood begins.” Life doesn’t work that way.
I mean, when do you really start anything? Doesn’t every single thing we do have its seeds in what we’ve already experienced in life, and don’t our lives themselves have their own seeds in our parents’ lives, and their seeds in the lives of each of their respective parents, and so on and so on, right on down to wherever and whenever this human journey of ours got off the ground? No, I’m not convinced that ‘commencement’ is the right word. Maybe something more like, ‘continuation,’ with a respectful nod to everything and everyone contributing to this admittedly significant moment. Of course, I expect that not one of us in the auditorium tonight will be thinking about any of this as our graduating sons and daughters cross over the threshold.
What we may be thinking about is the mystery of how we got to this place, of how on earth so much time has passed by. Oh, the sentiments will be flowing tonight! “Can you believe he’s already graduating high school? Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that he started kindergarten?”
Jude’s academic journey began with a flurry of gravel and tears. His supposed first day of school quite literally spiralled out of control thanks to an abundance of enthusiasm that inspired him to stop and run around in circles on the tarmac while his mother was leading his two older siblings into the school. I watched helplessly as his feet lost their grip, leaving a section of his cheek on the ground below as I carried him kicking and screaming to a kindly neighbour’s house where he received the medical assistance of a popsicle to soothe both the physical and emotional pain of missing out on his first day of school.
He eventually found his way back to JK, and while the frequency of carrying him in my arms to receive medical attention decreased over time, his mother and I certainly had multiple opportunities to spend time with him at the hospital for other reasons, including a split open chin in this final year of high school thanks to an overly aggressive game of dodgeball. Melissa and I are starting to learn that this is how parenting works: the challenges are different, our responses change, but something at the core of this truly unique relationship we have with each of our children remains the same.
A number of years ago, I had a revelation about a tradeoff that parents and their children make somewhere around pre-adolescence. In a child’s earliest years, parents have near total control of their child’s life: the parent determines where the child will live, what his or her name will be, and what ridiculous outfits they will be dressed up in. The child has no say in the matter; they just go along with it because the control is all in the hands of the parent. In return, however, the child exacts a price, and that price is freedom.
Reluctantly, the child agrees to this situation, which is ultimately unavoidable if they want to stay alive, but they won’t go down without a fight. And so each new child born into the world acquiesces in his or her own way, but the bargain struck is essentially the same: “Fine, I’ll wear this stupid hat you keep putting on me every time we leave the house and I will eat this horribly smelling pottage you’re forcing through my pursed lips, but in exchange, I will demand from you the ability to go to the bathroom in peace, or to even dream of having a good night’s sleep for the next year and a half of your life.”
As I’ve shared this analogy with parents of young children over the years, every single one identifies with the equation: you have plenty of control, but almost no freedom.
Then something starts to shift toward the end of the grade school years, which in some ways is relief beyond words to the parent, but which also makes them nervous as they venture further down this unfamiliar path. It happens very slowly at first as the parent begins to loosen the grip of control to allow the child its first slivers of autonomy: the first sleepover at grandma and grandpa’s, the openness to allowing them to go to school wearing that outfit, and the eventual but very difficult decision to allow them to play their ‘music’ on a long drive to the beach on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Each of these and a hundred other snapshots depict a loss of control on one hand, but also the reward of freedom on the other. Ah yes, freedom. If you say that word around parents of toddlers, they give you this look like you’ve accidentally slipped in a Latin phrase. Freedom, what is that? But then, one night while the child is at the grandparents’ discovering just how much sugar a small human can consume in a twenty-four-hour period, a mother and father suddenly find themselves home alone watching a movie that was made for someone over the age of nine, and they experience a feeling that is at first a little strange and unusual, but that very soon becomes like no narcotic ever known to humankind: freedom. From that point on, it’s Who cares what he wears to school if I can have five minutes to actually straighten my hair? Who cares what music I have to listen to so long as I don’t have to sit in the sand and pretend to enjoy building sand castles while my lower back seizes up into a tight knot?
And so it goes, the exchange of control for freedom, to greater and greater degrees, until…
Until that same child has handed back all of the freedom they once demanded from those who raised them, and until the parents have likewise handed back all of the control they once had over every decision in the child’s life, reaching an equilibrium that all truly healthy parent-child relationships must eventually embody. At that precise moment, this same child will walk across the stage of an auditorium during a ceremony that claims to be a ‘commencement’—a beginning—and it’s at this notion that I shake my head, because nothing at all ‘begins’ tonight except the same thing that has been beginning for the past eighteen years of our son’s life.
It’s a truism that we’re always longing for whatever it is we don’t have, only to discover, almost as soon as we get our hands on it, that we’re longing for something else in turn. Neither Melissa nor I want that early parental control back; no, that ship has sailed and we’re glad for it. But what we’re discovering as we enter into this new, uncharted territory of parental life is that the freedom that we once pined for, that we fought hard for, and that we eventually won as every parent hopes to one day—that freedom also appears to offer up a new exchange that I can’t quite put a finger on, at least not yet.
I haven’t been this way before, so I don’t quite know what it is, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with ‘connection,’ as in, Let’s leave behind those early exchanges of freedom and control and pursue something that we all want and that we will be able to enjoy together for as many years as we have on this beautiful, broken orb we call home.
All of which is just a long-winded way of saying, Happy Graduation, kid. Your mum and I love you a lot.