Why the Early Bird Doesn’t Always Get the Worm

“Out of bed now,” I say, though he isn’t on the bed.

As usual.

He’s on the couch, where he works on the computer, where he interacts with friends on Facebook, where he watches television then studies a few hours more, where eventually – he sleeps.

I take in the beauty of him as he rebels against my voice, as he fights the need to wake, as I wish – again – that I could allow him another hour. I say his name louder and he groans, opening his eyes. Graduation is only one month off, but weeks of exams lay ahead. His fatigue is cumulative, his moods volatile, and my own irritation, close at hand.

There is the daily strain of dovetailing his schedule and mine, the friction that comes of his 18-year old perception of priorities warring with my broader perspective, and of course, our vastly divergent morning behaviors. There is my need to be early, my morning rhythm which is strong and productive, and his cycles which are dramatically different from my own.

I see his weariness and try to cut him slack; we’ve been deep in college countdown mode for what seems like forever. In fact, it has been five months, though in some ways the entirety of the past two years has been about my nudging and encouraging, originating from a place of knowledge that I haven’t shared with him.

That I have no need to share with him.

Single Parent Guilt

To say that I’ve suffered single parent guilt is stating the obvious. I’ve written about it; I’ve managed it as well as I could. But this morning, it’s not guilt that I’m contemplating. It’s fear. The greatest single parent fear I’ve lived with – that I would die before my sons were raised, and before I could secure some sustainable means for them to attend college.

I suppose that any single parent with a problematic “ex situation” could say the same, but the fear has been pressing and acute, especially as I’ve struggled with health issues and financial woes. I needed to finish the job I began years ago – the parenting journey embarked on blindly and with faith in my spouse, and since divorce, another matter altogether.

Yet I recognize my good fortune in my two fine young men, in “angels” who have arrived as strangers and offered help, in the occasional exceptional physician who has provided unexpected solutions. In perseverance – not only my own, but that of my sons whom I know to be capable of excelling in a broad and rich educational experience.

I know their talents and their curiosity. I know their hunger to learn and explore. I know their desire to contribute and to enjoy life.

Financial Stress, Educational Expenses

I also knew that the only way my sons would go to college was up to them, and to me. Counting on the other parent was out of the question. With the schools they were interested in running at $50,000/year or thereabouts, scholarships would be vital – academic, leadership, talent – any merit-based funding that might pertain to their fields of interest.

And of course, loans would also be required.

Our financial reality is part of why permission to fail has never been given; failure is the natural companion to success, but a lax attitude is a luxury we do not have in this household.

There are no guarantees in parenting, no guide books that work for every child or situation. My way is not yours; my way with one child would not have been workable for the other. That includes taking my best guess at when to say no, as well as when to loosen the apron strings because I must. As for consequences and whatever lessons learned, independence is the ultimate goal, after all.

Permission to Fail? How About Encouragement to Succeed

As for my sons, the elder is completing his sophomore year in college, and doing so at a fine university on a full tuition merit scholarship, while carrying loans and manning two part-time jobs. He knows what it is to work – and work hard.

Then there is my younger son – the creative spirit, the one who bit off so much to chew, the one with nine applications and individualized art portfolios as he applied to architecture programs – finished just in time, in each instance. He has pushed himself steadily and with little break, dealt with disappointments in a mature fashion, and achieved critical wins – with delight.

Several weeks ago he was accepted to one of the top architecture programs in the country. But the dollars didn’t add up. No matter how I played with the numbers, I couldn’t make it work.

About two weeks later, the university in question extended an offer of a full tuition merit scholarship to their 5-year program.

Assessing the Present, Looking to the Future

To say this is a “win” (and a godsend) is an understatement. As for the remaining tens of thousands of dollars (room, board, books, fees, clothing and so on, for five years), there will be loans and work-study.

But here’s the net: Were I to die tomorrow, my son would still go to the college of his choice, to study what he loves, with opportunities he has earned.

I have no plans to disappear; I have dreams of my own and the hope that I may retain the energy to pursue them. But I will do so knowing that my children will own themselves, dependent on no one but themselves.

I find myself reflecting on the time that remains for my son living under this roof, and the life skills still to teach – practical matters to do with managing money for example. I find myself reflecting on the life skills he has taught me – patience, the value of laughter, the importance of being there – even if I have no words, and yes – that “early” may be my way, but it isn’t his.

One more reminder that there is no single key to success, no one definition of what that means, no one “right way” in anything – not in loving, not in learning, not in achieving, and certainly not in parenting.
© D A Wolf