When my 11th-grader confessed one night at dinner that he was not ready for college and wanted to join the military instead, I was thrown.
We hear those stories about the day we have to send our grown kids off into the world.
With most of my friends, it is usually about their kids going away to college–capping years of discussion about grades, career choices, campus visits, and the angst of applications and eagerly awaiting acceptance or rejection, followed by tears and pride.
We have just shipped our eldest son off to Basic Training for the U.S. Army, and I could not be more proud.
My pride is complicated, however. I have the utmost respect for the military and their service. I grew up with a veteran father who made history lessons dinner-table conversation. I attended an all-male military school during my middle- and high-school years. I loved it and considered the Air Force Academy to begin a military career. I have an enhanced appreciation today since moving to Military City, USA, several years ago.
Back in my 20s, I became more socially aware than my suburban, pre-internet youth had allowed–and more politicized. I came to question the military alongside broader government policies. The mid ’80s saw secret dealings in Iran paired with covert conflict and assassinations in Central America, framed by the controversial U.S. School of the Americas at Ft. Benning in my native Georgia. At the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, National Guard troops faced us down while we peacefully sought to be heard. Reagan’s silence about HIV whilst friends died empowered us further into an age of activism. As LGBT activists trained in nonviolence in the home of Martin Luther King Jr., our view was framed by a sense of respect for nation and process, paired with the demand for change.
In the 1990s, when we were at war with Iraq, modern-day concerns emerged about terrorism and chemical/biological warfare as well as a broader debate about how we do or don’t treat our veterans. It was also the age of Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
These years were formative for me and the military was often the centerpiece. Freedom to question our country and speak out was simultaneously an act of patriotism, while we also appreciated the frontline soldiers who honorably defended that right; and still do.
I never imagined then that a decade or so later I would become a father to two sons. I would not see parenthood for me as a matter of personal choice, but also as an unintended and often unwelcome political statement.
My father was a first-generation college graduate. Remarkably, seven of his nine Depression-era siblings completed college–mainly thanks to the G.I Bill. For me there was never a question about going to college which became a value I projected onto my children.
So when my 11th-grader confessed one night at dinner that he was not ready for college and wanted to join the military instead, I was thrown. I was pleased he was honest and not pretending out of a desire to please us. Quietly, I felt I should be disappointed but not show it. I was conflicted about the best path for him. I questioned his motive: service to country or simply not knowing what else to do.
Trusted friends advised me. I realized none of my angst mattered. I was over-thinking, as parents are oft guilty of. Most grown children are going to be who and do what they want, sooner or later, regardless what we imagine or expect. I saw that after years of a strained relationship, he was being honest and had the confidence to have a plan. I told myself that the military path was the right path for some kids, for a variety of reasons. I worked to believe that being supportive was better for our future relationship than pushing him into something he’d resent and perhaps fail. It was counter to my natural instincts and difficult.
As the year unfolded, I was amazed at my son’s resolve to see his plan through despite barriers that might make some give up. His passion grew. But, something else remarkable happened: by my coming to authentically accept his choice, the teen years marked by fighting melted away, his focus and confidence surged, and a grown man emerged ready for an adult relationship with his parents.
Over the years I have rightfully questioned his choices and had plenty of sleepless nights. Some I chalked up to silly decisions teenagers rationalize. Other times, I wondered if I was simply a bad parent. The lines between what is normal craziness and what’s unique to your child become blurred.
We struggle as parents, all of us I think, to separate our desire to be knowledgeable and admired by our children from the need to set aside our preconceptions and expectations. We see a big picture built from our life experiences. If honest, we paint a mental picture of what their life could, or should, look like. It’s a well-placed desire, and parents should never stop imagining.
Friends with younger kids occasionally ask what advice I have now that I’m on the “other end,” the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I never have an answer. I feel every family’s circumstances are so unique that there are no one-size-fits-all answers. Among gay parents in particular, children come into our lives in such a variety of ways–often with unique challenges–that I have been especially shy to advise.
Thanks to my Private Son, I think I now have an answer to their question.
These days his letters arrive, and I cry from happiness. His perspective is so mature; his stories shared so eagerly, his regrets so sobering, and his appreciation so authentic. Things I’ve wondered if he would ever feel much less find a way to communicate now come forth freely, and he is growing up so fast. I can’t wait to see him.
When I write, I thank him in return. Looking way back, I thank him for giving me the opportunity to be a father to begin with. More in the moment, I thank him for having taught me to set aside expectation and preconception, and be happy with a strong relationship, open communication, and a willingness to have faith that everything will work out.
And, that is my advice. Be a hero to your child, let your strengths and smarts shine bright. Share your hopes and dreams. But, when the stresses come to a boil, back off and leave room for the faith that everything will work out.
A dear friend has told me for years: Our kids “listen now and understand later.” I understood, I thought, but lost faith at times. It’s now clear that she was right. But, keeping the relationship strong for the long run is a two-way street. Sometimes we as parents need to listen now (to our children) and be willing to understand later.