When Your Baby Turns 21

by Sherri Kuhn
Originally Published: 
Birthday decorations and a cake for someone turning 21 years

Parenting milestones lurk around every corner when your infant is tiny and your life is full of all things baby—when simply catching a glimpse of your reflection as you hold that small chunk of your heart in your arms brings tears and smiles in equal amounts. Then comes that first smile, first words, tentative first steps, so many milestones, each lapping over the next. Your phone and your Facebook status are filled with the photographic proof of a young life moving forward. You are just along for the ride, apparently.

And then comes kindergarten—way too soon, it seems—and the milestones in the distance seem all too close as each elementary school year passes. Each new step is celebrated with trophies, photos, cupcakes, banners and high-fives. Your parenting skills are on call every single day, testing your patience and at times dulling your senses. You are bound to this child 24/7, your lives woven together through trial and error, through little victories and boundless love. Parenthood is both your greatest achievement and your deepest worry.

Middle school will feel like the longest three years of your life. Trust me on this one. Even with the usual worries about sending your baby to high school, it’s a relief to leave middle school behind. High school kids will test your mettle and take your parenting abilities to a whole new level. But you make it through—both of you—and suddenly the finish line isn’t as solid as it once appeared.

And then your baby turns 21. Mine did, just a few weeks ago.

And you find yourself staring across the kitchen table at this young adult who is at times both a piece of your heart and a complete stranger. The 21-year-old child talks current events, chats up his college professors, researches grown-up things like car insurance quotes and cell phone plans, votes and has a credit card. Sure, there are still milestones that reach far into the distance, but many of those will be celebrated and cheered with someone other than his parents. That’s how it is supposed to be, honestly. We love, we parent, we praise, we argue, we nurture and we teach—then send them on their way. I am so very close to launching this one, with only one year of college left to complete.

Yet, there is something unsettling about this birthday. More man than boy, it seems that we have passed the tipping point of parenting. Will he seek us out when life throws him a curve ball? Will our scraps of wisdom—many delivered with a healthy dose of sarcasm—stay lodged in his brain, waiting to be pieced together at the appropriate time? Or did we try too hard and spew too much information over the years, causing his brain to overload and tune it all out? I don’t know the answer to that one yet.

At times when I lie awake at night and my brain refuses to shut down, I’ve been reliving scenes of his childhood, watching with a critical eye how the actress portraying me has handled each situation (it’s Sandra Bullock, by the way). And if you are currently in the thick of parenting, in that messy part where the diapers and crying and nights without sleep dull your senses and make you want to quit, I’ll let you in on a secret: These will not be the moments that flash in your dreams 21 years from now. You will instead fixate on turning points—those moments or “issues” where your parenting and decision-making skills took childhood on a different path. These “what-if” scenarios are the No. 1 cause of sleep deprivation in parents of young adults. What did I forget to tell him? Did I forget to do something important, take him to a certain museum or read aloud to him from that one incredible book? Did I buy the wrong milk, let him eat too many French fries? Should we have encouraged him to study Chinese rather than German? I will never know.

He will always be my baby, my boy, the child who pulled me into parenthood. Dark, scruffy facial hair reminds me that he isn’t so little anymore—reminds me that the perfectly formed baby boy we were awarded at the hospital 21 years prior has graduated, in a sense. He has moved on to that next tier of life, where parents step aside and a child tests their ability to navigate the adult world on their own. Holy crap, right?

To have parented a child from baby to young man in 21 years feels equal parts victory and unfair. “It goes so fast!” they tell us. And wrapped up in the blanket of time the sum total of 21 years did race by. But when I think back on the upside-down sleep habits of newborns, late-night asthma attacks, playground drama, middle school angst (for both of us), college application season and crappy summer jobs, it does seem like an incredible feat just to get him to this point. Still my child, yet really an adult. There is a disconnect in my brain now when I serve dinner and ask, “Would you like a glass of wine with that?” When I catch myself watching his interactions with other adults and have to remind myself that he is, in fact, an adult now. The bulk of my parenting is finished, term paper graded, dissertation complete. I have been awarded tenure.

My son is home for the summer, working a full-time job in his field of study before he enters the final year of his undergrad degree. We have settled into our new normal, the ebb and flow of three adults and a teenage sister living together in the space formerly occupied by a little boy, his little sister and his parents. I’m trying to listen harder, lecture less and take my parenting game to the next level. And it is actually pretty damn awesome to enjoy the company of your adult child, I have to say. I must admit there are times when I would love to debate whether T-rex could have beaten Megalosaurus (if they had lived in the same time period), or about which brand of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream has the most globs of dough.

But I’m happy to take this scruffy-faced young man and enjoy his adult company—maybe even share a pint of beer. And I’ll raise my glass to all the kids turning into adults, slowly but surely, and to the parents who helped them along the way. It’s one incredible ride.

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