Dear Dr. V,
I am a parent of a 5-year-old boy who is now going to Kindergarten and I am struck by my reaction to this milestone for my son. Instead of feeling excitement or even nervousness, I am feeling a sense of loss over my own youth. I do not understand why this event has made me feel old and as if my best years are behind me versus happiness for my son. Am I being selfish? Am I having some kind of weird mid-life crisis? Or is this event just a milestone for me that I have a hard time facing … that soon I will be attending his graduation from high school, college, etc., and ultimately my own mortality?
It is perfectly understandable why you would feel the strange mix of emotions you do. After all, this is a milestone you and your son share; it’s not just his exclusively. So you are going through a process here as well. As this is a major turning point in your life, it makes sense to me that you would have a more acute sense of your own mortality. You are in no way being selfish, you are just being human.
What you are dealing with does not sound like a mid-life crisis to me at all. I think it is a combination of primal emotions. As we move along our individual paths through existence, it is only natural that when major lifecycle events occur — the two major ones being birth and death — we are made aware of the reality of our limited time here on Earth in a very concrete way. In part, because we can’t help but identify with the person who is entering or leaving the world, but also because these events are signals that a generational shift is underway. Children become parents, parents become grandparents. Those who for so long occupied the spot of being the youngest in the family, in essence the “babies,” now find themselves in the middle. To a lesser extent, events such as your son’s starting kindergarten, or when he goes away to college, or (brace yourself) gets married and becomes a father himself, all of these joyous events are also reminders that time is passing. At the same time, they are also reminders that the present is a precious, irreplaceable treasure that should be savored and cherished as much as possible.
In reference to your best years being behind you, I think that is really just a matter of perspective. Joseph Campbell once said that each of us stands at the center of the universe simultaneously, which is to say we are all vitally important in the great scheme of things. Perhaps you could perceive this time in your life in a similar way. This is to say, whatever period of your life you are in, know that it is the best time you have yet to experience.
It’s been said that human beings have a fascination for our past because it is the only true “safe” place. Nothing can ever change there, nothing can ever be touched. It will always be just as we left it. And the further away we get from certain periods, the more idealized we can choose to make them, allowing the sorrows and trials to fade away, focusing only on the good times. Though your time as a youth may have passed, your future experiences as a father, and even grandfather, hold more enrichment, wonder and joy then you could imagine. Of course there will be ups and downs, laughter and tears, but that is the peril of being alive. So, at this very moment, you are in the best time of your life, and yet the best is still to come. If you can find the truth in this statement, you may also find comfort.
Yet I would not discount as mere nostalgia any memories or emotions that may rise to the surface while you watch your son’s progression through childhood. You might realize your boy is going through challenges or difficulties you yourself could remember enduring as a little one. I think if you can recognize these moments as such, they could be of tremendous benefit to you as a father. It’s entirely possible that your own unearthed childhood feelings could aid and guide you in relating to whatever obstacles your son encounters, which in turn can make you a more effective and empathetic parent.
I also would not be too hard on yourself for not feeling immediately happy and celebratory for what, of course, is ultimately a wonderful step forward for your family. I think so long as you don’t avoid these feelings of loss and melancholy, but rather face them with acceptance and genuine openness to whatever they might have to teach you, they will pass in time, making room for their positive counterparts. Maybe you feel a bit blue now, but it could be that when your boy brings home the first macaroni necklace he made for you, or the drawing he can’t wait to see go up on the fridge, these “small” moments will be the harbingers of the joy and laughter you might have been expecting, as opposed to the very real, adult feelings swimming right now in your emotional ocean.
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