Parenting From a Distance

I tear up when I think of the three of us together, but I know I must let go

Photograph by Getty Images

My firstborn calls from hundreds of miles away. He sounds excited. He’s landed a job.

He’s a newly minted college grad and I’m thrilled for him that he’s “starting his life.” Naturally, when he tells me he’s moving to another part of the country, I console myself with the fact that the distance is only a few hours by plane.

But this is my mantra from my perch in the Empty Nest: My job as a parent is to support their dreams, to serve as a sounding board, to give them the respect that they have earned. To hold down the fort.

I remind myself of my elder son’s maturity: He is my talker, my inquisitor, my self-proclaimed protector. He is the 6-year-old who cared for me when I was ill, the 7-year-old who kept me company at the Antiques Roadshow, the 8-year-old who stood up to a bully for his little brother. He is the 9-year-old who slowly processed that our family wouldn’t be the same after divorce, but I wasn’t to worry — at 10, he promised he’d never leave me. He would build a house in the backyard and live there with his wife and children.

At 12, he flew across country for a summer study program and at 13, he tended to me after unexpected surgery. At 14, he partied in the mosh pits at a European music festival, the details of which I’ve never heard, and I’m more than happy to leave it that way.

At 16, he settled into a tiny town in Brittany as part of a semester abroad, immersed in French. By the time he headed to college at 17, I was accustomed to our goodbyes and just as well because there were more — Belgium at 18, Switzerland at 19 and now, at 21, his next adventure awaits.

As for parenting from a distance, you could say that I’m a veteran. I worry, of course, but my life is full and busy. I text only occasionally and otherwise leave him be.

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As for my younger son, he’s a very different personality. He’s quieter, more mysterious, creative and difficult to decipher. He’s still in college but returns to the nest for half the summer, installing himself on the living room couch where he holds court with friends, and also sleeps.

I have my rational theories as to why he does this — the space is open, the kitchen is just a few steps away, he can doze while chatting on the computer and watching TV.

I also have my alternate theories, bred of the sentimental heart: he is closer to my room, he knows I will see him as I move silently through my morning routine, I will look on his sleeping face and feel soothed by this gift, however fleeting.

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I sense there is complicity in his appropriation of the living room, this proximity that is tinged with goodbyes as he’s here for what seems like a minute and then he’s gone — eight states away again — to a part-time job and back to college.

Like his older brother, he also worked abroad, though he is less of a wanderer by nature. He calls and emails on no particular schedule as we discuss a variety of topics. Every now and then there are surprises, like the time he left a video buried in a file on my laptop, which I only discovered two years later. He is pulling another all-nighter, and he’s exhausted as he speaks:

So it’s the middle of the night and I was working on my history project and thought I’d try this and say hello and tell you I’m going to get some sleep now, and everything is going fine. But how do I get you to play this when you get up in a couple of hours? I know, I’ll do this — I’ll write “play me” and you’ll see it.

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I watch his 17-year-old face as he narrows his eyes, purses his lips, moves his finger toward the screen and paints the words “play me” across its surface as if he dipped his index into a puddle of vermillion. I have no idea how he accomplishes this, but he seems pleased and continues:

Now you’ll know to play this video, except these words appear at the end and I’d have to leave a message to say play, but rewind first. [He laughs.]

OK. Maybe you’ll just find this … Anyway, goodnight … and I love you.

I smile when I think of that video.

I tear up when I think of the three of us together and our tedious, triumphant, grueling, lighthearted, challenging and joyful years.

Naturally, I miss my sons. And of course, I worry. But this is my mantra from my perch in the empty nest: My job as a parent is to support their dreams, to serve as a sounding board, to give them the respect they have earned. To hold down the fort.