Focusing on the Bottom Line

At a party celebrating the high school graduation of my sons’ friends, I got to peek in on an acquaintance and her two-week-old son.

In that home, the youngest of a large brood was heading off to college, while the oldest, who lives nearby, had just brought new life into the family.

The stark contrast of endings and beginnings not only struck that family, but it also caused the rest of us to reflect on our roles as parents.

babyIt was so much simpler when our concerns centered on a baby’s sleep cycle, milk consumption and diaper content; his intake and outflow.

Back then, we didn’t understand the older ladies who advised us: “Little children, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

It was hard to fathom how anything could be more challenging than trying to get a baby to sleep through the night, calming a toddler’s tantrum in the checkout line or toilet-training a stubborn three-year-old.

Those of us with teenagers understand those wise women now.

Since my second son has just graduated, I know that this summer will be full of “big problems”:

–       He will work hard to earn money to blow at college parties and concerts.

–       He will spend endless hours “chilling” with his buddies, sensing that everything will change when they all splinter off in the fall.

–       He will fry his skin at the beach, ignoring the sunscreen in my outstretched hand as I chase him to the car.

–       He will skip a few family dinners, when he can’t pull himself away from friends and fun.

–       He will fight with his siblings, shouting, “I’m glad I’m leaving.” They will feel the same way.

–       He will miss his curfew more than once, not employing a phone that is either out of juice or turned off.

–       He will roll in smelling of campfire, with a belly full of burnt marshmallows and a heart full of smiles and great stories.

–       He will question the family rules, stating that he is old enough to run his own life.

–       He will do his best to soil the proverbial nest, so that he and his family will be equally prepared for his departure.

As he stretches his wings and prepares for flight, in a week that also includes his eighteenth birthday, I can’t help thinking of Alice Cooper’s infamous anthem:

“… I’m a boy and I’m a man,

I’m eighteen and I don’t know what I want…

I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart…

Don’t always know what I’m talkin’ about,

Feels like I’m livin’ in the middle of doubt.”

It’s hard to be a teenager. It’s equally hard to parent one, and I know what lies ahead this summer for my husband and me:

–       We’ll often wonder where our son is, who he is with and what he’s doing.

–       We won’t sleep well until he returns home safely each night.

–       We’ll remind each other that in September, we’ll sleep better, knowing that when our son is 2,500 miles away, we will be out of the loop.

–       We’ll try to repeat important lessons about schoolwork, respect, dating and partying, and pray that some of our words will sink it.

–       We’ll remind him to separate the reds and whites in the laundry, expecting to see several pink T-shirts at Thanksgiving break.

–       We’ll continue to search for the world’s loudest alarm clock, simultaneously praying for a helpful and understanding roommate.

–       We’ll look at each other and remember the little problems that 15, 16 and 17 years ago seemed so big.

–       We’ll attempt to keep our lectures and worries to a minimum, and try to focus on the bottom line: safety.

Not long before my firstborn left for college, I told him that while I harped on hundreds of petty issues, my biggest concerns were simple and straightforward, and all related to safety: Don’t try, and get addicted to, hard drugs; don’t drive under the influence; and don’t get anyone pregnant.

This mindset was echoed last Thursday, in the entertaining, yet poignant, graduation speech delivered by the school’s messianic band director, Parker Bixby.

After explaining why every Friday he sends students off with the message “Don’t lie to your parents, they love you,” Bixby continued:

There is no one else on earth who is more invested in your future or who loves you more than your parents…who has lived the past 18 years of their lives with the sole purpose of ensuring your future happiness…who has filtered every decision they have made regarding their own future through its impact on yours. It is your parents who look at each of the stupid decisions you have made not as evidence of who you are, but as events that contribute to who you will be.

I don’t expect you to understand this,” Bixby asserted. “You are biologically predisposed not to be able to understand the depth of your parents’ love for you because, if you did, the pressure to make good on that emotional investment would be crushing.”

And so, Bixby explained, his speech would certainly be interpreted on two entirely different levels: what the graduating seniors heard, and what the parents heard. Using two separate microphones, he used several examples to demonstrate this phenomenon, including:

Mic. 1 [what kids hear]: “These have been the best days of your life.”

Mic. 2 [what parents hear]: “Birth to 6th grade was great; I started liking you again in high school, with the exception of junior year. I love you now, though.”

His final translation was this:

Mic. 1 [kids]: “Go forward and find your bliss.”

Mic. 2 [parents]: “Don’t get pregnant.”

All at once, I was reminded of the baby, of the small problems of infancy and the big problems of the teen years, and it all became clear:

The bottom line still is about intake and outflow.

–       Linda Williams Rorem, 10 June 2013


  1. Denise Wagner Wertenberger says:

    Thank you, Linda! Well done! I have been dealing with many forms of this exact topic for the past 7 years. The dilemma which takes my breath away and makes my chest hurt: If I do my job to the very BEST of my ability, my children will move to the far regions of the world. (And selfishly, I will not see them nearly as often as I would like.). Because I have raised 2 people that I really truly LIKE and enjoy being around, the rest of their lives I will probably never be able to get enough of being around them.
    And that brings tears to my eyes.
    At least it helps to know that I am not the only person who feels like that… 🙂

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