A few nights ago, after brushing his little, seven year-old teeth while wearing a set of colorful, seven year-old’s pajamas, my youngest son bounced up to me to make an announcement. The bouncing wasn’t a surprise, of course; when you’re seven, if your movement from place to place isn’t primarily bounce-driven, something needs a band-aid, someone’s angry, or a trip to the pediatrician is in order. The bouncing, then, was quite par for the course. The announcement, though, was a little more unexpected. He looked over at the book shelf in his room where we keep the bedtime book we’re currently reading, and then crushed me with a few simple words.
Now, I say “we” in reference to bedtime reading there, but there’s usually very little “we” about it. I mostly do all the reading every night. Not because he needs me to, by any stretch. The kid can read better than many adults I know. Heck, I’ve always thought I was an advanced reader in the 1st grade, and he puts me to shame. But for whatever reason, he has always preferred for me to read to him before bed every night anyway.
That is, at least he used to.
“I want to read to myself tonight.”
I blinked. I’m pretty sure I felt a knife twisting somewhere in my chest.
“Uh, okay, buddy.”
“You can tuck me in and turn off my light and I’ll read with my lamp on. I’ll turn it off when I’m done.”
“Yeah, okay. Are you sure?”
Just like that, my career as a bedtime reader was over. No warning. No pink slip. No severance pay. For more than a decade prior to that moment, I’d read something – usually something well-read and familiar, at least to me, because, let’s face it, everyone knows you read the dinosaur books and Mike Mulligan at least once a year! – to one of our four kids almost nightly. The count of (mostly consecutive) bedtime readings had to have stretched into the thousands.
Up until last week.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, I suppose. As I said above, the kid can read extremely well, so I should have expected him to be reaching for independence. But I think that understanding perhaps required a level of honesty with myself I wasn’t nearly prepared to demonstrate.
Hello. Reservation for “Willfully Ignorant”, party of one?
At any rate, the little guy climbed into bed and flicked on his lamp while I pulled up the covers and turned off the overhead light. Then I shuffled over to the door, listening.
“Chapter Six. The first grade class…”
I didn’t hear anything more after that, I’m guessing because I’d somehow become temporarily dumbfounded by my own sudden obsolescence. As I kneaded my feelings like a mushy lump of sourdough for the next few hours, it occurred to me that this sort of thing, was, in the best case scenario, the entire point of parenthood. You have kids, you try to teach them things hoping that they’ll eventually be able to manage themselves without you, and with luck, by the time you’ve reached Valhalla, they carry on by themselves.
Except, that’s not really how it works. What really happens is something a little more insidious. See, if you’re serious about actual parenting, by which I mean, “raising humans capable of humaning for themselves” as opposed to “raising adult-sized dependents who never quite learn to manage their own time or use a steak knife properly1“, your little hatchlings will likely express their desire and ability to fly alone long before you’re prepared for them to hop out of the nest. More specifically, what happens is: you have kids, you try to teach them things, they learn them, and then tell you that they can do it on their own, without you.
At which point you realize that success as a parent necessarily means making yourself mostly kind of obsolete.
Which is the kind of realization that goes well with a sympathetic spouse and a bottle of moscato. Or, lacking either of those, a stiff draught of Arrogant Bastard.
But the funny thing is, even as you succeed at making yourself unnecessary, the sting of it lasts for only a moment. The pride of knowing that you made the picture below possible, that a thousand other books might take the place of the book in his hands over the course of his life? Yeah, that feeling stays with you.
1 Apparently that’s a terrifyingly popular methodology operating under the guise of “parenting” these days