Last fall my wife and I participated in one of those parental rites of passage -- driving our child off to college.
Our daughter was going to school in Orlando -- the University of Central Florida -- and since we love the Orlando area and have many great friends and family there, we decided it would be a fun trip to drive her. Our son would stay in Happy Valley with his grandparents, and mom and dad would have an entertaining farewell journey with their daughter.
We took two days on the drive in both directions, spending a night in a hotel along the way. On the return trip north, sans our newly matriculated progeny, my wife and I checked into a hotel in Salem, Virginia. As we made our way to the room we realized this was the first time since our daughter had been born in 1994 that we were spending the night alone without either of the children.
Well now, that was an interesting thought. Over 20 years without spending a night alone! Twenty years! What a great opportunity for fun and excitement! So, of course, we went to bed early and fell asleep exhausted from the drive.
That 20-year gap demonstrates our general approach to parenting – living on the edge of the bell curve. We like to think it’s the front edge of the curve, but it could just as easily be the trailing edge. Baby co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, home-schooling and other less-traveled choices have all been a part of our child-raising experience.
On a personal level the concept of falling to the sides of the bell curve may have taken root in me early in life. As a child in public school -- back in the “old days” -- one of the common habits of starting a new school year was putting covers on your assigned textbooks. This was ostensibly to keep them from getting more dog-eared than they already were, but also to keep the wheels of commerce churning as another item to add to the back-to-school supply list.
The more creative kids would use paper grocery store bags, scissors, tape and glue and create personalized works of art that would morph as the year progressed. I would just search the store aisle for book covers which spoke to me and made a philosophical statement. One year I purchased a set of covers with a pastoral fall forest scene along with a quote I found endearing, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
The quotation was from a man named Henry David Thoreau who at the time was unknown to me. But more than four decades later I clearly remember the circumstances of my introduction to the quote and its author. I have used that line many, many times over the years and its relevancy gets stronger as I age.
Years of infertility issues and procedures, five ectopic pregnancies and their accompanying emergency surgeries, one miscarriage, all eventually leading to the arrival of two beautiful healthy babies. These experiences colored and shaped our perception of being a father and mother in ways that were outside the norm. It seemed to us that raising children would regularly involve two general choices: you could mold your kid’s lives around yours, or you could mold yours around theirs. We chose the latter. Parenting for us has been a story of the road less traveled, with a nod to Robert Frost, and it has made all the difference.
And so, here it is almost a year after that fateful evening in Salem and since then we have not spent another night without the presence of one of the children. Which is about to change in a big way.
Later this month both our daughter and son will travel with a local youth group to Assateague Island for a week of spiritual camaraderie. Although, I’m sure they would use different language to describe it. My wife and I will watch them board a bus with their friends, wave goodbye and see them off. Then we will return to an empty house save for the two of us.
Six nights. After all these years my wife and I will have six days and nights to fill. Well, the days will fill themselves with work that pays the bills. But what to do in the evenings? Where to go? What will take up the time normally spent with family? All of which is to say – if you see the two of us later in June walking the streets of State College with our mouths agape and blank stares in our eyes, feel free to point us down the road less traveled. Otherwise we’ll likely be in bed by 8 p.m. finding out how ten hours of sleep feels!