Ask around a little, and you’ll find out there are two contradictory things people will say they’ve learned about marriage and long-term relationships. Some will tell you that the person you’re with today isn’t going to be the same person five, ten, or twenty years from now. And others will say that no one really changes.
They’re both right. A decade or two from now, all of us will have changed in ways we can’t imagine today. Our priorities, our dreams, how we spend our time—when some couples look at one another after twenty years, it’s no exaggeration when they say they don’t recognize the person they married. Yet we also know the qualities that remain constant through the years: an openness to others (or lack thereof), a sense of humor, a gleam in the eye that belongs to no one else.
The parent/child relationship can take on some of the same textures—like an aging romance. It’s a rare heart that is impervious to the adoration of a toddler literally looking up for guidance—the
reward for all the work it takes to raise them in those years. But when adolescence sets in, those same eyes peer out from the face of a young adult, and the feelings are more complex, more elusive.
A recent article in the New York Times framed adolescence as teenagers taking over the narrative. The parent used to frame the story of the child’s life, and now that young person lives in a drama entirely of his or her own devising. That rings true for every father of a teenager who feels the sting of ridicule (or worse, indifference) from the kids who once idolized him. Once there were marathon games of catch and bedtime reading; now their bedroom doors are shut.
Hey, you want to say, I thought we were on the same page here.
For me, there’s also a sense of time ticking away. In a scant four years, both of my children will be legal adults and (presumably) heading out into the world—the time when their stories are irreversibly and rightfully all their own. We have a classic mismatched sense of priorities. Part of me is hanging on to the past, while their eyes are focused ruthlessly on their futures.
If you’re paying attention, there’s always a point when you realize that your children have taught you as much as you’ve taught them. When they were babies, I learned about depths of emotion, and selflessness, I didn’t know I possessed. Now they’re like fellow travelers, watching my daily attempts at happiness and meaning, looking on with their own judgments and insights (sometimes unvoiced out of respect, or perhaps compassion).
They’re not the same people they were as children—they surprise with their depths, their limitations, and the elastic contours of developing identities. But there are glimmers of their unchanging essence as well: a sly expression, a quiet act of generosity, a moment of impenetrable reserve. These are the things I suspect their partners and spouses will know best about them someday.
Time is inherently tragic. The years pass, we lose the things we hold close. There are fewer losses more painful, in a fashion, than watching our children grow and seeing their previous selves disappear. But they’re not ours to keep. They belong to the world and, more importantly, to themselves. They need to become someone entirely different, while not changing at all—like the rest of us.