Archive | May, 2015

She’s Leaving Home

7 May

About a month ago, Amy and I took our daughter to the airport for her first solo trip across the continent.  For a little more than a week, Emma exchanged one set of crazy family members on the West Coast for a set of equally crazy family members in the New York Tri State area.  No big deal, right?  She’s 18, perfectly capable of getting around on her own, and she was in good hands with our family back East—at the very least she was in no worse hands than if she were right here at home with her meshuganah  parents.   But as we walked her to the security line at LAX (an airport I despise almost as much as I hate the wildly inconvenient JFK in New York), I became a little melancholy, a little clingy, and even a little weepy.  To be clear, I didn’t have a full blown meltdown—nothing like it.  Instead, I found myself balancing on that emotional razor’s edge between the great joy and pride I feel for the young woman my daughter has become, and the great melancholy I feel for the loss of our little girl who has, seemingly in the blink of an eye, disappeared from view. 

For a few years, now, it seems that my entire relationship with Emma is a balancing act, a joyous, frustrating, reassuring, and unsettling effort to figure out the shifting borders of parental and filial authority, accountability, knowledge, expertise, and wisdom, while simultaneously reassuring each other of our mutual love.  She is a bright, confident young woman with an impressive range of interests, tastes, and passions, and I am a somewhat overly sensitive, frequently anxious, and excessively self-reflective middle aged man who, up until recently, was accustomed to being her teacher, mentor, and (in conjunction with my wife, of course)  undisputed authority on expectations concerning her conduct and behavior.  Perhaps I am fooling myself on that last part, but at least Amy and I had the power to reward and punish into Emma’s mid-teens. 

Today our roles are fluid.  Frequently, Emma is my teacher.  She has introduced me to the joys of spoken word poetry, Buzzfeed, and Dr. Who.  She has opened my eyes to the difficulties and indignities suffered by young women, and she has helped me better understand the range of social-sexual categories claimed by a generation of young women and men who refuse to be pigeon-holed into society’s expectations of hetero and homo sexuality.  I am continually impressed by the depth of her intellect and emotional intelligence.  That is not to say that I have nothing to offer in return.  I do.  Emma still has much to learn about deli, pizza, and, of course, cookies.  Like my father before me, I have introduced her to the joys of classical music and opera.  I struggle mightily to turn her into a proper New York Giants fan, but, sadly, to no avail. Since, at different times, I have been a very bad and a very good student, and a teacher, I have many lessons to offer about the right and wrong ways to get through college, about communicating with her professors, proper study habits, doing research, critically assessing sources, and developing a more sophisticated “written voice.”  And, most significantly, Amy and I spend a fair amount of time teaching Emma to develop a greater sense of personal responsibility and self-direction, while sharing with her the difficult ironies and sometimes harsh realities of life.

Precisely how we share these lessons with Emma, and how much credence she is willing to give to our words of wisdom, has become a source of uncertainty and contention.  For several years, now, our parental authority has diminished, as Emma develops her own insights into and opinions on what is appropriate, right, and fair.  She is an Angeleno, and like so many born and raised in this city, her sense of time and punctuality are at odds with mine (native Angelenos are routinely late).  We frequently bicker over what time she should leave the house in order to get somewhere on time. We differ over the relative urgency of a range of issues from the cleanliness of her car and room, to the appropriate amount of time it takes to respond to e-mails.   And when our opinions differ, we clash—emotions run high, arguments ensue, and feelings get hurt (sometimes hers and sometimes mine).   Moments of anger and frustration are soon followed by moments of deep sadness and regret (at least on my end…I can’t speak for Emma).  And while Emma continues to give every indication that she will be an extraordinary adult, something inside me continually worries about how she will make her way in the world.  Those worries lead to criticisms, which I know annoy her.  But for God’s sake, I’m her father, how can I hold my tongue?  I am sure that Emma, and probably Amy, would tell me that it’s quite easy and that I should just shut my big mouth every once in a while.

Added to all of these fears, frustrations, and anxieties is the reality that Emma will leave us soon. Her trip to New York was the first in what will be a series of departures.  This August she will leave for a nine month gap year program in Israel.  Her return to Los Angeles, and to our home, will be a temporary respite from her ongoing journey, as she will no doubt leave us for college, work, and, someday, to start her own family.  That knowledge fills each exchange, each laugh, each hug, each argument, each tear, each moment with a sense of urgency and importance that both frightens and excites me.   My daughter is entering a new phase in her life, a phase that has diminished, and will continue to diminish, my ability to influence, inform, and (of greatest significance) protect her.  As we continue down our respective paths, any relationship we have will be driven far more by mutual choice than mutual obligation.

Naturally, I have been on the other side of that relationship dynamic.  Like all parents and children, my folks and I went through a fairly tumultuous transition period, one that didn’t really get sorted out until my mid-thirties.  I was pretty obnoxious to them, and in some ways my continued residence in LA well after it became clear that I stood almost no chance of succeeding in the entertainment business was a way for me to avoid them.  Today, of course, I live here because of all the personal and professional networks we’ve established in the City of Angels, but I feel and regret the great physical distance that separates me from my East Coast family quite keenly.  This was particularly true when my dad was dying, but the feeling continues to trouble me as I watch my mother and I, both, get older.  I really wish that I had come around sooner, that I had come to see one of the most important facts about the relationship between parents and children, namely that our time together is a great gift and is limited by forces well beyond our control.  I have tried to convey this and other important lessons to Emma, and I think she gets it.  Nevertheless, as I watch her begin her journey into adulthood, I begin to wonder if she will want to spend time with me as I age and decline. 

When I share these thoughts with the parents of grown children, they remind me that our job as parents is to prepare our children for a world without us.  One memorable discussion with the parent of two kids in their late twenties directed me to the insights of the great poet Khalil Gibran.  In his epic poem, The Prophet, Gibran tells us the following about the relationship between parents and children.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

I suspect I could have just shared these verses at the beginning of this essay and been done with my post.  While I cannot say for certain that the words are true, they somehow say so much about the great paradox of parenting, a riddle that gets more confusing every day.

As always….stay tuned.