It was 1998, and I was about to graduate from college. As my impending graduation grew closer, I started to panic. It wasn’t just the leaving behind the autonomy I’d built in my years at JMU that terrified me; I legitimately had no idea where I was going to live or what I was going to do after the college president shook my hand and sent me on my way. That is until the phone I shared with my roommate rang. A voice I’d known since elementary school blared out in a familiar drawl. Niki had a year left in college, but what if I wanted to move to the city with her and Lisa? What if they had found the perfect house for three 20-something women—ignore the crack house around the corner—to start living in?
I don’t remember one second’s hesitation in making that decision, and twenty years later, I am impressed that our friendship survived that year of unintentional life. But that’s what happens when you grow up in a small town: your options, just like your friends, are often limited. You learn to grab any chance that comes along, and you maintain relationships with the very same people who you used to share snacks and slides with on the playground.
Today, most of my childhood friends have children. Their children range in age and size and personalities, and sometimes they talk in a language I don’t always completely understand. When I spend time with them, I am simultaneously reminded of my age and what it was like to be theirs. There is a freedom in the latter because I get to revisit my own childhood through sharing theirs with them. It helps that most of my memories include their parents, so I am not entirely alone in my remember whens.
In loving other people’s children, you get to share in the joy of the traditions without all the drama of the mundane. You get to breeze in long enough to drop off gifts and hugs and advice, but you aren’t responsible for braces and new glasses, soccer uniforms, or late-night visits from stomach flues and nightmares. With other people’s children, you get to be invested in who and what they become, but you aren’t directly responsible for the process of their getting there.
And while there are undeniable benefits to this parental-unit-on-the-side status, what no one talks about is how after you’ve cradled one long enough, the space that is left after they climb down and you go home is often left just being empty. The smell of fresh cut grass in their hair and their childness lingers long after they are gone, and you can still feel their weight in your arms even after you’ve scrubbed the leftover ice cream off your skin.
The thing about loving other people’s children is that while they may feel as though they belong to you, they don’t, and their role in your life—and yours in theirs—is beyond your control.
You can love and defend and maybe even discipline them fiercely and with the best of intentions, yet you still go home with the sound of their giggles merely ghosts in your mind.
This afternoon, my phone rang, and the familiar sound of one of those childhood friends shook me from a headache-induced nap. We caught up as she drove to pick her daughter up from after care. During their commute, we juggled our desire to talk with her pressing timeline and Addie’s need for her mother’s direction and attention. In this short amount of time, I managed to defend Addie’s snack consumption and offered up a mildly inappropriate personal anecdote and potential solution to her having to change into her uniform with only a few minutes to spare. Because that’s what the like-family adult gets to do: offer up support while instigating mischief without any of the consequence. You get to play the parental role, yet you don’t have to do the actual parenting; bless the real parents who get caught in your wake.
I cherish my relationships with my friends’ children, and I know they do too. I look forward to seeing them when we get to visit, and technology has allowed us to snap and insta and follow each other online. I get to witness their lives even when I can’t be directly a part of them. I look forward to watching them grow up, even if it is a version that is digitally enhanced, but sometimes I miss them all the same. I don’t get to see the every day, and some days, that hurts a little more than I expected. I am currently working to make peace with the shadows they leave behind, but for the time being, I am embracing my role as the holy guardian of heathen children, and, Hailey, don’t you ever forget it.