The last of the college acceptance letters are trickling in. I’d like to think I’m prepared for the loss and relief I’ll experience when my daughter leaves home, but I never anticipated the way I’d feel now, in this squishy in-between time defined by the looming transition. College is the beginning of something new for her, but to me it feels like an ending. The sound I hear when she opens letters from prospective schools is the rip of packing tape coming off the roll, sealing her childhood, making it unalterable, contained and ready for evaluation.
Like every parent, I’ve made mistakes, but now it’s too late to go back and change anything. Lately, I’ve found myself poorly negotiating a minefield of parenting regrets that come in all shapes and sizes, and range from stupid, like regretting that we never ironed crayon shavings between pieces of wax paper to make “stained glass,” to significant, like when we moved between her sophomore and junior years of high school. Her relocation turned out to be about as easy as switching oral surgeons in the middle of a root canal.
When she doesn’t focus, I blame myself for letting her use the computer too much and getting her a cell phone too early. I talked about allowances and chores, but never had the discipline to create or enforce systems. If she doesn’t empty the dishwasher, or she wastes 30 bucks on a tube of lipstick, I blame myself. Now, when she takes long showers, I worry that I didn’t instill in her a deep enough stewardship ethic.
There were short, delicate moments when she might have been receptive to learning new skills or developing interests, and I missed some of those sweet spots. It seemed I always introduced her to books at the wrong time, like having her read Catcher in the Rye before she was ready for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I signed her up for sailing lessons when she was too old and tall, so the boom of the little training boat always hit her in the head. Maybe she’d appreciate the Rolling Stones if I’d listened to them with her before she decided my taste in music sucks.
I turned out to be a different parent than the one I imagined I’d be. I thought I’d read with my kids longer than I did, but I couldn’t stay awake. We stopped at the Dumb Bunnies before we hit the classics. Gluing macaroni to a piece of construction paper was about as crafty as I ever got. I didn’t think I’d be the mother who would get so caught up with work that I’d routinely miss the registration deadlines for classes at the recreation department. I thought I’d be fun like my aunt and uncle in Michigan, who staged elaborate Easter egg hunts. Even after my cousins left home, they’d surprise them with spontaneous hunts when their family got together, no matter the time of year. I’ve never even decorated eggs with my kids because I don’t like the smell of vinegar, or the mess. One year we didn’t even bother with a Christmas tree.
I’ve never been a Tiger Mother, and now I’m paying the price. I wonder if that’s the reason some parents push their kids so hard and expose them to every activity under the rainbow. Is it out of genuine concern for their development, or are they afraid they’ll end up like me, stewing over missed opportunities? Are piano recitals and Chinese lessons and tennis and cooking classes just a kind of emotional insurance? Or are they concerned that their kids will one day look back on their childhoods and find haunting, troublesome gaps? Why do we even think of childhood as a thing, when our parents never did? They never tried to package it for us and make it magic. We were kids, and then we weren’t.
I want some way to apply the parenting lessons I’ve learned over the years in the form of do-overs, but without the diapers and spilled juice and temper tantrums. I think about becoming a foster parent or adopting a child, even though I’m sure I’m too old and tired, my husband isn’t game, and I’ll probably never go through with it. My 15-year-old son asked why I want another child now, and, without thinking of how it might sound to him, I said “Because I’m finally ready to be a parent.”
Who am I kidding? I’d have to be a different kind of person to be a different kind of parent. I don’t rise to occasions. I’d have to rewire my brain in order to maintain charts and calendars when I can’t even bother with to-do lists. I’m not a micromanager. Camping sounds like hell, and skiing involves too much money and equipment. I don’t like sitting outside in the cold and drizzle to watch soccer practice. (Tell me: Why do parents watch soccer practice?). I crave time to myself.
Regret might not be the right word for what I’m feeling, because regret usually results from negative outcomes, and Olivia turned out great despite a parenting style that might be best described as benevolent neglect. She works hard and volunteers, and she makes us laugh with her quick humor. So what if she never starred in the school play or competed in a chess tournament. So what if she never went to a state or regional championship, and her bookshelf is filled with books instead of trophies? She’s cooler than any kid I could have cooked up with my own recipe, even if I never taught her how to sew (I don’t know how to sew). At least she knows to roll a lemon on the counter before cutting it so she can get more juice.
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