You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Older son has come back to live in San Diego. After four years of college and two years exploring near and far, he’s enrolled in grad school in America’s Finest City. It fills my heart to have him nearby and makes me happy happy happy. With him is his live-in girlfriend of three years, whom we love and adore.

For the moment, they’re staying with us while they look for their own place and organize their savings to support it.

And here’s what I never, ever thought I’d say. Part of me secretly wishes they’d stay with us — indefinitely. It’s embarrassing, given the position I’ve taken on adult children living with their parents.

Since my boys left for college, and even before, I’ve firmly maintained that check-out time at Mom’s hotel is age 18. I have an exceedingly well-thought-out rationale for this.

Once you leave home for college there’s an expectation that you’re launching a life of your own, and that doesn’t include living long-term with Mom and Dad. Of course, we will always provide a safety net. You can come home for a bed and a hot meal for as long as you need it, but the goal is to be on your own and make your way. It’s what’s healthy for young adults AND their parents (who, oh by the way, have earned their privacy and freedom from hands-on parenting).

After being on our own for years, Husband and I lived with his parents for a few months after our firstborn arrived. We were in a big rush to move into our own place, even though they welcomed us to stay. We rented a small apartment until we could afford our first house and struggled along the way. That was our template for launching grown kids, and we were committed to it for our own in spite of a different generation and vastly changed economic conditions.

So I’m that mom who scoffed when my friends talked fondly about their kids who came home after college and moved back into their childhood rooms in the ‘burbs (I had long ago cleaned under the bed and taken the surf posters down off the walls). Never. Not mine.

But just like so many of those other nevers; never offer a pacifier, never use the TV as a babysitter, never give in to pleas for fast food, never let them eat a piece of fruit that isn’t thoroughly washed, never expose them to violent media content, never pull them out of school for a play hooky day, and on and on — when it comes right down to it, you don’t know what you don’t know.

What I didn’t know was how much I’d enjoy having almost-grown-ups around. I didn’t get how much fun it would be to have a full dinner table again, and lively conversation with the 20-something perspective. I didn’t appreciate how great it would be for Daughter, a senior this year, to have a big brother and surrogate sister around as sounding boards for the stress of college applications, to offer an understanding that her parents can’t.

I didn’t guess how much Husband would enjoy the company of his son, another adult male, a partner in testosterone poisoning (messy tendencies notwithstanding). I never figured on the pleasure of having another woman in the house to offer a point of view on anything and everything, including my son, that would turn out to be so in tune with mine.

I didn’t realize how much richness it brings when you see the results of all those years of parenting, up close, day after day … the pride in the young adult who stands before you. It’s not the same as those brief snapshots during visits and family vacations.

It’s the big picture; the full circle. The result of a lifetime of paths chosen and decisions made. It satisfies in a way I couldn’t have imagined.

Still, I realize the truth of our original stance. It’s important for them to find their way, and for us to find ours without them. They need their own home, to establish their own traditions and their own family, without the dictates of ours.

We’re here for them whenever they want us, but it should be by choice, not by default. I can’t say that I won’t miss them when they find their little cottage (or hovel) by the sea — I will. Our door will be open and dinner will be just a short drive away. Part of me will be sad and miss them like crazy. Because I didn’t know what I didn’t know.


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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