My family used to live in a house that had several overgrown lilac bushes running along its north side, bushes that had been there for probably a hundred or so years, their trunks gray and gnarled with purple blossoms that were impossibly fragrant in the summer air.
During the spring and summer, those lilac bushes became known as the ‘jungle’ since, to our son Joe’s then young eyes, they were as green, overgrown, and endless as any plot of land running along the Amazon might have to offer. My husband, Mark, and I enjoyed the jungle too, especially since it was conveniently located next to the front steps where we could sit, drink a cup of coffee, and keep an eye on our little explorer.
Every so often, Mark ventured into the jungle along with Joe. Joe was always thrilled when he was joined by his dad. “Follow me,” he’d suggest, waving a dimpled hand as he led the way to the back of the jungle where he’d hidden a plastic bucket and shovel.
One day, Mark and Joe began to build a small, very primitive playhouse in the jungle. Mark let Joe do the planning while he took orders. The two of them rearranged twigs, branches and dark green leaves until they were both satisfied. Sitting down on a log/sofa, Joe stretched his legs out and sighed happily. “Oh, Daddy,” he said, “I so happy.”
That was many years ago. We moved away from the house with the conveniently located jungle and our intrepid explorer is all grown up now, discovering new territories, along with a different kind of jungle or two every so often.
To my mind, one of the hardest facts I’ve been forced to accept about being a parent is that we’re no longer completely able to elicit statements like ‘I so happy’ from our children, no matter how much we long to. Somewhere between baby teeth and adulthood the responsibility for finding one’s happiness becomes something a person has to do for himself. We can try to buy happiness for our children with purchases ranging from toys to video games to flat screen television sets. We can attempt to cheer them up, make them smile, even coerce a laugh or two. Sometimes we achieve our goal. Many times—especially as they get older—we don’t.
Throughout my journey as a mom over the past two decades, I’ve occasionally wondered why parenthood seems to become more difficult with each passing birthday, both my husband’s and my own as well as our children’s. Not worse, but definitely harder. When our children were teenagers, I thought any and all angst in our household was due to the double whammy of hormones—ours on the decline and the boys on the increase. But I’ve come to believe that there’s more to it than that, that there’s a plan or a path that we all have to follow, no matter if we want to or not. I believe that if our children’s jungles stayed small, close to the house, and easily navigated, they’d never learn how to use a compass on their own. And that’s the goal of most parents—to make sure their offspring can figure out how to get out of any jungle they might find themselves in some day.
So we force ourselves to sit back, bite our tongues, and wait as they figure out the difference between North, South, East, and West, as well as which direction they really want to go in. We try to be there to help them up if they fall and we clap more loudly than anyone else when they soar. Most of all, we let them know that we’re not going anywhere. We can’t lead them through the jungle anymore, but we can always offer them the use of our machete.
It’s never easy to watch your child struggle as he makes his way through the world. But it’s so very rewarding to watch when they do reach a goal, when they get their diploma or ace an interview or even handle a failure with grace. Such occasions make a mom think, ‘I so happy too.’