I live on a street mostly occupied by retired couples. They spend their days doing retirement type things; golf, tennis, walking, working out, volunteering, reading, gardening. I watch them go about their golden years, smiling and seemingly enjoying the slow lifestyle and relaxed days.
And I just want to ask them one question.
I want to walk up to them, grab them by the shoulders, look into their calm faces and at the top of my lungs ask,
“HOW DID YOU DO IT?”
Just that one question.
And then I want them to spill their guts about the insane roller coaster ride of parenting they just spun around a billion times on , and are lucky enough to have finally been told “Take your personal belongings (anything that is left that the kid’s haven’t destroyed), grab your spouse by the hand (if you’re still talking to each other), and disembark. You’re done people!”
How did you do it?
How did you make it to this point?
How did the stress and chaos of the parenting roller coaster not actually kill you?
I think about asking this question to them more and more these days, as our family is in what feels like a great transition. I have a high school senior getting ready to leave the nest, but still a hatchling in so many ways. I have another teenager navigating his own adolescence, in the shadow of the first kid who is stealing the college spotlight, yet more mature and still 2+ years away from his own independence. I have a newly minted middle schooler, who I just noticed for the first time this week, is sporting a body now that is sightly changing, his chin structure losing a bit of chubby youth, and squaring out slightly. His self-reliance is both satisfying and guilt enduring. Is that autonomy the result of my neglect? Or is it accidental free range parenting? And then there’s the one we still call “the baby.” He’s eight. He’s loud. He has grown up with one desire and one desire only; to do everything the big boys do. God help him.
Everyone is changing so quickly, the ride is speeding up.
I want to get off for a little while. Did they ever want get off?
I want to ask the retired couples how they made it through the tough weeks, the ones where words are spewed between kids and parents that are filled with anything but joy and kindness. The weeks where kid logistics planning takes precedence over marital intimacy. Weeks where uniforms are lost, homework is lost, patience is lost, and we are out of toilet paper. Again. Where cars break down, hot water heaters explode, business deals go awry, and a well planned and graciously prepared dinner sits uneaten on the kitchen counter, because exhaustion, attitude, selfishness, and disrespect all converge at the same time and among every member of our family. Just because.
Just because some weeks are tough like that.
The retired people I have the pleasure of seeing everyday sometimes actually help me get through the tough weeks. They made it! They did it! Maybe I can too! They had newborns and sleepless nights, toddlers and tantrums, they had rough and tumble kids and goofy tweens, they had mind numbing teenagers and partying college co-eds. They helped navigate fledgling graduates into new apartments and new careers. They married off sons and daughters, moved them across the country, or even across the world. They bravely rode the parenting roller coaster, they probably screamed and cried on it, undoubtedly at the beginning, most assuredly in the middle, and definitely at the end.
But they got off smiling.
I won’t ever actually get the chance to ask them my one question, and there’s a wonderful and perfectly good reason why I can’t. Because when we talk, right after they ask me about my family, their face brightens and their grin widens. “Wanna see a recent picture of the grandkids?” they’ll ask. And just like that, all the tough weeks they endured as parents, the years struggling on the parenting coaster, all of it will melt away in memory. Gone. Like they never happened.
In my heart, I already know the answer to my big one question, so I don’t ever ask it.
“The ride was great!” they will say. “Man that ride went by so fast. I wish I could ride it again!” they’ll add. “Stay on the ride as long as you can!” “The best part is I get to ride it again, with all these amazing grandchildren. Wanna see a recent picture?”
Turns out I'll make it off this insane ride eventually, and from what I can tell, the next one is a well deserved reward for the first. You see, you can get off when you want (send the grandkids home.)
Now that's a ride I can handle.