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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Joy And Sorrow Of Parenting

Among the many reasons I have to be thankful for at this moment in my life is the joy I have experienced as a parent. Conversely, that same position also produces some of the most agonizing life experiences as well. Today was a day in which I strongly felt both emotions.

I have long suspected this day would eventually arrive. In fact, I knew his departure was a certainty since that day in January that Justin received notification from the Peace Corps that he would soon be assigned to Mongolia as a teacher of English.
My wife and I have always cultivated the values that contributed to this decision. One of our favorite quotes has been the following advice to parents - "Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child." We supported traveling as a means of expanding one's view on life - and he criss-crossed our country many times through most of the 50 states on family trips when we lived out in the western United States and returned east to visit our relatives. He also journeyed to several different European countries during nearly a dozen transatlantic trips since he entered high school. He also enjoyed a brief visit to North Africa and a vacation in South America. When he was six years old we enrolled him in an inner city school where I served as principal so he could broaden his understanding of other socio-economic groups, cultures, races, and religions - and he grew up pursuing an interest in learning about other people and received an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Archaeology, and a graduate degree in History. He developed and  sustained an interactive relationship with my wife's cousin, a man who parlayed his own experience in the Peace Corps into a position of influence throughout Asia (he has already emailed the president of Mongolia - an acquaintance of his - as a letter of introduction for our son).

Nonetheless, I still found myself a bit unprepared as he packed and readied himself for the flight that would take him to San Francisco to meet with the other 66 Americans representing the Peace Corps in Mongolia for two days training before leaving first to Inchon, South Korea for an overnight lay-over and then to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. From there he will separate from the other volunteers and travel to Darkhan, in north central Mongolia by the Russian border, where he will stay with a family for three months and learn about the culture and language of Mongolia. Following that transition, he will receive the location of his assignment for the following 24 months.

It didn't really hit me until we held a barbecue for him last Sunday. Many friends and family members came to wish him well and celebrate his new opportunity. It brought tears of laughter through all of the stories shared by those in attendance, and tears of sadness through the realization that except for a trip my wife and I have planned to visit him next summer, we would not be with him again for a year. His friends and relatives would have to wait 27 months to visit with him once more. Hopefully he will have a connection to the Internet so he can remain in touch through emails, Facebook, and Skype. However, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world, with vast stretches of beautiful land bereft of people separating villages, so we can't assume communication via the worldwide web.

It's not like he's 18 years old and leaving for college or moving away to secure employment elsewhere. He's older. But, he'll be exactly halfway around the world, approximately 12,000 miles in either direction, east or west. And, he an I have always shared common interests in politics, literature, sports, history and enough other areas to become best friends, beyond our father-son relationship. My wife and I have both ensured that we would neither be helicopter parents who hover over their children, nor the detached parent who gave rise to the famous Harry Chapin song of the 1970's entitled Cats in the Cradle (all parents should listen to it - it's about a boy who grew up with an emotionally distant dad and in turn maintained his distance from his dad as an adult when his dad finally sought a relationship). There is a lot of room between those two points on the parenting spectrum. I believe we found a comfortable spot in the middle. Suffice it to say, the moment he had to get in line to pass through the airport security check point and out of our reach, was dramatic and traumatic.

That's what parenting is about. Providing an environment of love, compassion, understanding, acceptance, safety, and support (and so much more)- recognizing that the day will come when the child becomes an adult and selects their own path to their own goals, likely with other people along the way. Distance, time, and varied interests may combine to stretch the relationship between the parents and their son/daughter. Actual visits might be reduced to electronic transmissions or digitized images from computer camera to computer camera. Although the transition is inevitable, it is rarely smooth or easy.

Yet, as long as he is doing what he wants to do, chasing his dreams and sustaining his hope, making a difference in the lives of others, and enjoying the personal journey - I must take comfort in his experiences and trust that his mom and I have sufficiently prepared him for the path he chose. Parents must invest their faith in that emotional equation from the time they bring the infant home from the hospital to the time the child becomes an adult and seeks to invent their personal future.

Our daughter has similarly elected to help others grow. She is an elementary school teacher who exercises a passion for developing opportunities for children. She immerses herself in her profession with the perspective that it is a mission and not a job. It's always rewarding for us to hear from her colleagues and the parents of children in her class who praise her efforts and energy in teaching. Fortunately, although she also enjoyed vast travels here and abroad, and evidenced similar desires to learn about others, she practices her craft in a community located slightly less than an hour from our home.

We have been fortunate parents who have realized the good fortune of watching two children blossom into fine adults. The difficulty our two adult children experienced at the time of their separation at the airport reinforced our role as parents.  We have been privileged to raise two children who have remained close and respectful of each other. That certainly didn't make thing easier though. It was a heart wrenching good-bye for all four of us.

On a final note, as I steadied myself for the time he would leave us, I imagined how much more incredibly difficult it must be for those parents and family members who have had to extend good-byes to sons and daughters in the armed services who are traveling far distances in harms way to protect and preserve our freedom. I have a deeper empathy for those of you who have experienced such departures.

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