There are only two ways you can go
Away from or back to your home
After my freshman year of college, I stole my dad’s car and drove from Carlisle, Pennsylvania to Louisville, Kentucky to spend the summer with my girlfriend. I didn’t steal the car in the “hot-wired in the middle of the night” sense, but did I borrow it for a few weeks and then didn’t come back. My dad was furious, but because he loves me he didn’t do anything more than repeatedly ask me to come home, which I repeatedly declined to do. The car was an early-90s Plymouth Colt hatchback with no air conditioning, and it sweltered in the Kentucky heat.
Summer became fall and I didn’t go back to school, because I didn’t want to leave Evie. We had started dating in high school and then left for separate colleges: she in Kentucky and me in Washington, D.C. During our freshman year we spent lots of money on phone cards (if you’re younger than 30 ask your parents) and visited each other a few times using credit cards we had no plan for paying back. We broke up and got back together a few times over the year. We agreed to spend the summer together to figure things out, and after that we didn’t want to risk being apart again. We requested leaves of absence from our universities, got jobs at a hotel in Louisville, and moved into a crummy apartment. Evie worked evenings and I worked overnight. We had no idea what we were doing, but we were buzzing with the feeling of being adults in a real relationship.
Sometime in late fall everything became really real when we found out Evie was pregnant. Whatever vague plan we had, this wasn’t part of it. We’d always looked down on couples who got pregnant in high school: we were the smart kids, we were going to college, we weren’t going to get bogged down. And now here we were, barely 18 months out of high school and pregnant. We panicked, quit our jobs, and moved to Nashville, where there was a promise of stable work and help from family. That help was premised on the assumption that we would get married immediately, and so that’s what we did. Looking back, I’m not sure we would have gotten married so quickly, but at the time it seemed like the only path forward. I don’t regret being married now, but these days we both wish we’d found our own way to it. At the time we didn’t have much perspective, and so we got married and we began preparing, as best as two teenagers could, to welcome a child.
C was born six days after I turned 20 and seventy days before Evie would. I’m not going to detail everything that’s happened since because that isn’t what’s on my mind right now. For a very long time, I avoided telling this story about our family. We were young parents who looked even younger, trying to make our way in professions where both our youth and our children seemed like they could be liabilities. I didn’t consciously omit my children from my self presentation, but did by exclusion whenever that seemed easier.
Even today, I get anxious when the question of family comes up in academic settings. I’ve watched the shock cross so many faces when they hear the number five, heard the platitudes about our full hands so many times—I’m exhausted by it all. There are aspects of our story I remain deeply embarrassed about, like the amount of student debt we accumulated trying to build an academic career while supporting a family. But I closed myself off too much. Thinking back to graduate school, for instance, I realize now that I spent so much effort trying to appear mature and put together that I failed to spot opportunities for friendship and collegiality. I distanced myself from my fellow grad students as well as from other parents outside the university, for completely opposite reasons and to equally alienating effect. I still watch with envy as people commiserate with close grad school friends at conferences, but I can only blame myself to not have such opportunities.
I’ve only discussed the origins of our family a few times, with anxious grad students contemplating the birth of a child. I think it’s helped them to hear it. Only now, nearly two decades in, am I realizing that it has been a mistake not to talk about all of this more freely. There is no honest story I can tell about myself in which C and her siblings are not its pillars, no account of me that isn’t necessarily an account of us.
In an instant, it seems, C is very nearly the age we were when she was born. As the child of two children, she raised herself more than a kid should have to. She’s welcomed four siblings and helped us raise them too. She’s been our companion as we returned and finished undergrad, attended grad school in turn, took first jobs, then second jobs, then more. She’s been a nomadic academic kid, moving house seven times and schools even more often. And she’s somehow emerged one of the smartest, most mature, and kindest people I know. She’s a talented writer with two novels drafted and more in the works. And now she’s headed off to Mount Holyoke College, where she will spend four years indulging all her nerdy interests, meeting incredible friends and colleagues, and becoming an absolutely unstoppable force for good in the world. I could not be more proud to be her dad, or more excited to watch what happens for her next.
And I’m so sad that she’s leaving.
I know C will be back for holidays and summers, but I can’t quite fathom that she won’t be part of the regular rhythm of our family next year. I will miss her wittiness at the dinner table, her geeky enthusiasm on movie nights. I will miss catching her in a quiet moment of conversation with one of her brothers, working hard to be patient even when they make it difficult. I will miss her, in small ways and big ones. I know she will come back, but from this point on, each return will carry with it a new expectation of leaving: leaving sooner, leaving for longer. I guess that expectation has been with us the whole time she’s been with us, and I’m just now facing it.
I know these feelings are cliché, but knowing they’re hackneyed doesn’t make them less present or painful. I realize that every child reshapes its parents’ lives, and I’m aware that our experience isn’t unique in the world. But our lives are the only ones I can speak to from experience, and looking back I cannot help but reflect on the degree to which our family was founded and shaped by this child who is leaving in just nine days. There is nothing—our marriage, our educations, our other children, our careers—that did not spring from the wondrous fact of her existence. She will always be our first, our foundation, and her leaving feels uniquely weighty. Our youngest turned eight yesterday, which means we will be facing new expectations of leaving for awhile yet. We will adjust to new familial configurations and find new normals. After years of welcoming children, however, it feels like a momentous shift to begin letting them go.
I’m not ready.