Last week, we moved my middle son into college. I know by now what lonely expeditions these are. You carry in boxes, help make the bed, meet the roommates if you are lucky. Then, suddenly, you are superfluous. Everything’s been said, perhaps too many times. Your child is restless. There is nothing to do but go home.
As we drove home, I was grateful for the strong relationships I have with my children. And I think for the nth time about the dream I had 16 years ago that kept these relationships on track:
I’m on a quest for wisdom. I follow a swami through many lands and dimensions, completely engrossed by the journey. When it’s over, I meet two very old men, sitting on children’s stools.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“We are your sons,” they reply.
I look closely and see that these ancient creatures are indeed my two sons. In my self-absorption, I had missed their entire lives!
I woke up heartbroken and panicked. The feelings lingered for days.
I still feel emotional when I reflect on that dream. But I also feel grateful. For this dream warned me about something I could not otherwise see: I had the capacity to abandon my children, not intentionally but by unconsciously following my drive for personal and professional growth. And that would have been the great tragedy of my life.
To say that dream had an impact on me would be a gross understatement. I embroidered it onto my awareness and touched it to remember my priorities. For the conflict between my children and my ambition came up often, in ways both large and small. And each time I put my ambitions aside, I suffered. But I knew this suffering was tolerable, whereas the pain of failing my children would undo me.
I had just started a doctoral program in clinical psychology when I had my first child. At first I thought parenting was a piece of cake. My son arrived right in the middle of winter break. My husband and I tucked him into our lives and went on. But when my next son arrived, all hell broke loose. I was busy with classes and practicums. Money was tight. My sons were extremely active, and needed constant monitoring. Our house was tiny. Things seemed out of control.
One night I came home late to find my exhausted husband sitting outside in the dark, with the front door closed behind him. Inside my toddlers were wrestling around the floor, watching “Star Wars” on TV. I knew something had to change.
The first thing I did was slow down my graduate work. This was surprisingly painful, involving a great deal of shame and self-criticism. I couldn’t quite convince myself that having two small children was justification for cutting back on my day job. And I knew it would cost more money in the long run, adding to the financial pressure.
Then I switched my emphasis from health to child psychology. If I was going to study human beings, I might as well focus on the ones who need me most. I continued to shift my professional focus as my children grew up. Now teens and young adults enthrall me.
Still, turmoil raged inside. I recall sobbing to my supervisors, convinced I would fail as both parent and clinician. My supervisors simply validated the dilemma. I would feel pain about both areas. But the struggle was worthy.
Summers were especially difficult. One year, I tried to juggle my schedule by putting my sons into Junior Lifeguards. When one son adamantly refused, I angrily told him he had no choice.
That night, I received another ethereal message. I dreamed I was watching the news and saw a clip about child soldiers. There, in the middle of the ragged pack, was my eight-year-old son. I was furious in the dream, wondering what incompetent parent would allow this to happen.
Once again, I slowed down my schedule.
It got easier, of course, as my children grew up. We muddied the matter by having a third son, but even he is now 14. They would all be shocked by how much they once needed us and how hard I worked to make them the center of my world. And now they are giving up the spot.
Soon, I’ll be the one fighting for prime real-estate in their lives. I’m glad I have credit in the bank.