by Beth Burrell
Of all the things parenting has least prepared me for, it is not being behind the wheel – I am a reluctant passenger, in and out of the car. It wasn’t that long ago that young children were asking me from the backseat, “Are we there yet?” And there I was in charge, my answers immediate. Now, in what feels like a cruel trick of time, the question is mine.
“Are you there yet?” I ask. Sometimes I get an answer.
This happened two weeks ago. I stared at my phone after texting those four words to my younger daughter. She was traveling to a city more than three hours from her college. Another student was driving a van-full of college kids to the hostel on the Friday night of Easter weekend. I’d asked my daughter to text on arrival, nothing more (pushing aside my wild imaginings of an inept, frazzled student driver).
Four hours passed. Nothing. I finally went to bed, texting a last time – Yoohoo. Any update? Nothing. Uncharacteristically, I’d taken the phone to my bedroom, hoping I’d hear something before turning out the light. I did not.
The next morning, I saw her text: OH MY GOSH. I’m so sorry. We got here at 10:30!!! Safe and sound. I sighed, mostly with relief, glad I’d resisted checking my phone during the night, yet annoyed too that I hadn’t done so. Why not look rather than worry every time I woke up?
“Are you there yet?” is something I wonder often about my kids in both real and existential ways, though none of the three are truly kids anymore. I wonder where they are, if they are there. I wonder who they are, who they’re becoming. Whether it’s the person they thought, or the one I did. Or either.
In other words, have they arrived – at whatever destination, real or hoped for, that they’d planned? I wonder what I expect exactly, when I’m still looking myself. Why do I expect them to reach a point of arrival on this ever-shifting, mysterious course, riddled with the mundane and the spectacular?
Unbelievably, my youngest turned 20 about three months ago. I now have three in their 20s, yet still found myself automatically writing 19 on a recent form. How could I not have a teenager? I’d had one for so long. In fact doing the math, I realized I’d been the parent of a teenager for some 14 years. I don’t feel ready to have three 20-somethings. But since when did my readiness matter?
Yet to be fair, having adult children has its perks: First, they’re (mostly) gone from home. Yes, I miss them, but I also relish hearing what they’re learning and doing – somewhere else. But even more, much of what they are doing is way beyond anything I’ve done or dreamed of doing.
Earlier this year, my youngest returned from a week-long service trip in Puerto Rico. She was buoyant and bowled over by her time at Plenitud, a working farm devoted to sustainability and teaching others how to care for the earth. Fortunately for me, I saw her immediately upon her return, her face lit up, talking about the people she’d met whose lives were devoted to running the farm, helping them transform steep unusable land into flat earthen stairs for planting coffee and cacao, crushing turmeric root to cook with, and learning to compost with worms. She’s never been one to revel in dirt and bugs, yet she rose to the occasion, sinking into the mud daily.
I loved listening as she described tent life for a week and using the outdoor toilet (hole in the ground). It had a toilet seat that moved to a new location (hole) when the former hole could hold no more. We laughed but appreciated that immediately after it was moved, a tree would be planted in the old hole, thriving indeed.
At the farm, she had the chance to see people working full-time at jobs she’d never imagined. As she shared her experience, I was struck by the vastness of the world, the unknown-ness of it. We forget in our daily lives and struggles how little we venture outside of ourselves and what we know.
For my part, it is always a challenge not knowing what is coming, and accepting that the backseat is where I belong now, as passenger. But it is also a marvel to see my children’s worlds blown open by new experiences and choices – even though I don’t always know where they’re going or if they’re almost there.