The Kids Are Now on Their Own – Sentiments of a Parent “Left Behind”
A little while ago, I came across a certain work of art in a magazine, checked it out on YouTube and was extremely moved. It took me several days to figure out why it had connected so readily with my deepest emotions. The work was displayed inside a wooden former elementary school building in an abandoned rural community near Rokko Mountain in Kobe during the 2010 event of the biennial Nishinomiya Funasaka Biennale art festival held there.
On the ground floor of the school that had just shut down in March of that year after 137 years of history, you see paintings and so on exhibited in the empty classrooms. As you go up the stairs to the 2nd floor, you start hearing children’s voices singing accompanied by a piano. The melody is that familiar song we in Japan used to sing at school, Hanyu no yado (originally composed by Englishman Henry Rowley Bishop in 1823, known as Home! Sweet Home! in the West). As you approach the room, you see on the opaque windows of the four sliding doors silhouettes of pupils singing and a young woman teacher conducting them. You also see something like feathers wafting, falling from above.
Inevitably you reach for a sliding door handle and pull the door open and at that precise moment the voices and the piano stop. You peer inside the “music room” and there’s no one there. Only silence. The curtains sway gently in the breeze coming in through the open windows. Outside spreads the green mountain scenery, and around your feet are scattered pure white feathers and tiny bits of paper cuttings from art class.
“Partly because it was late afternoon, I felt so sad that I almost cried,” reported manga artist Kyoko Ikeda in the weekly Shukan Bunshun (13/10/2011) of her experience. The work, entitled Sudachi no heya (Room After the Children Have “Flown Away”) by Yakan Kobo and others apparently had quite an impact in Japan.
But why was I so moved? Take people suffering from a not-too-severe chronic ailment. They may “forget” their condition from time to time in their daily lives. If one were to use the analogy of an ailment to describe the constant feeling of loss and loneliness many parents feel after their children have moved out, it’s that “chronic heartache” one might forget from time to time. So it must have taken me a few days to “recall” that heartache. Readers who have had a similar experience would understand. To those readers who are bound to experience this in the future, I’d just like to explain why I’d like you to love your kids (different from spoiling them) as much as possible while you still can.
Part of the heartache is having to deal with this business of “his room“ and “her room.” As I sit in my basement study writing this, my son A’s room directly above me is empty and quiet. Only recently, or more accurately until about two years ago, that’s where my son used to play computer games or his electric guitar, often with his friends, late into the night. On more than a few occasions, I had had to shout “Turn down the volume!” Night after night, we had spent our time in front of our respective computer screens. Could we not have had meaningful discussions instead at least some of the time? I can’t help regretting. We still converse occasionally on Skype, but his abode is now a shared apartment in Tokyo, and now we’d be lucky to have him back in Vancouver for as long as two weeks a year. (Once, while talking on Skype, he took out an onigiri he’d just bought, wrapped nori around it and bit into it. As we heard the distinct“crackle, I felt a pang of nostalgia. Nori back in Japan is always “crackling crisp” and fresh.
Our daughter also left around Christmastime last year to lead a life of her own. What she’s doing may not be quite consistent with the “blueprint for her future” her parents had envisioned for her. But among other creative activities she’s held a couple of small exhibitions of her paintings, and she’s also working part-time. I mentioned her in an e-mail exchange with a musician friend, who was nice enough to give me words of encouragement: “You’ve done well to raise her like that.” Herself a mother, she perhaps understands why I always tend to emphasize my daughter’s strong points. Our independent-minded “M-chan’s” room is still more or less in the state she left it, i.e. cluttered. My wife likes to keep the house tidy and I do my share of cleaning chores. So we’ll get around to tidying up her room, but not just yet.
It was some 14 years ago that we moved here from Singapore with our son and daughter, then aged six and four respectively. They have now set off on their own journeys of life as adults (more or less) on courses not necessarily consistent with the blueprint of their parents’ “Canadian dream.” I can understand this rationally, but it will probably take some time for that “ache in our hearts” to subside.
Our kids used to go to a neighborhood elementary school. Whenever I drive past houses where their good friends used to live, to and from which we used to ferry our kids and friends, the smiles on all their faces often as not flash through my head. Scrutinized through the eye of a “left behind” parent, there are “evidences” here and there in the familiar neighbourhood street-scape: an old trampoline showing absolutely no sign of use that’s been out on the lawn from before we came; a basketball hoop and backboard put up over the garage door where I haven’t seen kids play for years and years; and lit-up decorations that keep re-appearing every Christmas or Halloween featuring reindeer, ghosts and other things little kids love. No matter what the circumstances, the heartache of watching our offspring take off on their own must be shared by all parents.
There are at least three ways to cope with this kind of heartache. First, to put more effort into work, volunteer activities and so on. Secondly, to maintain one’s emotional stability by indulging in hobbies and such one truly enjoys, and thirdly, to develop modest but fresh bonds of friendship with young people of the same generation as one’s own children, particularly by taking in English-language students from abroad through homestay programs.
If one is wrapped up in sentimental thoughts while performing tasks at work or during volunteer activities, it could result in time loss or could even interfere with effective decision-making. This is regardless of whether one is a corporate employee, running a family business or a free-lance professional. When one returns home and begins preparing dinner, one may suddenly recall that “we only have two people to cook for,” and feel a pang of that heartache, but only the passage of time may alleviate this kind of pain.
It would do well to spend some of that extra time one gets, now that one’s not taking care of the kids any more, on hobbies and such that one really enjoys. As many readers are already doing, there’s golf, fishing, skiing, sailing, gardening, hiking, group trips for the outdoor-type folks, and pottery and other handicraft, haiku, calligraphy, painting, shogi, go, bridge , singing, playing of musical instruments for the indoor type. Solo or in groups, it doesn’t really matter what as long as there’s enjoyment. I happen to enjoy playing jazz guitar. While taking part in jam sessions or listening to friends play, I don’t think about my kids.
I’ve mentioned before the words of an old couple we got to know when we first moved here 14 years ago. They said: “Now that we’re so old, we can’t travel to different parts of the world . . . so instead, we let young people from around the world come to us.” The retired doctor and his wife, who had a career as a nurse, used to live in Saskatoon, and earlier in Peru and other parts of south central America and the island nation of Mauritius. Now a widower, his wife having passed away about five years ago, Mr A. recently had a party to celebrate his 90th birthday. Surrounded by friends young and old, he was smiling like a child.
To help our household finance as well, we’ve been taking in English-language students from abroad at the rate of two or three a year for the past decade or so. Ranging in age from young students to junior civil servants and their nationalities including Korean, Taiwanese, Thai, Mexican, Turkish and German as well as Japanese, our boarders usually have dinner with us several times a week. As we dine with sons and daughters of parents we’ll probably never meet, and discuss things like their classes and Canadian society, we begin to open up more and more. We come to share their happiness when they, for instance, make significant improvements in English over a relatively short time.
Another great thing, I get to learn more about how things work in countries I’ve always been interested in. For example, it turns that all three German students we’ve had , ranging in age from a high-schooler to a graduate computer science student, were from the southern State of Bavaria.
What impressed me was that the high school boy, aged only 16, was already a “man of culture,” able to discuss in English everything from politics, international relations and history to the arts and music (classical, Beatles, jazz etc.) intelligently. Moreover, a friend of his that he used to bring over often was also like that, meaning high schoolers of such caliber were nothing special. From another student, I learned that even students in schools of accountancy had to study Latin in Bavaria. Isn’t that an amazing level of education?
One more example. We had a Turkish lady civil servant staying with us toward the end of last year. I’d always heard that a key aspect of that society was the tremendous power bureaucrats wielded in the tradition of the grand viziers of the Ottoman Empire. So I asked one day whether it had been necessary to have a “connection” in order to get her civil servant’s job in addition to exams and other requirements. “Yes,” was her answer. As in Japan and many other Asian countries, Turkey too still seems to be stuck in the realm of “connections,” “thank you gifts” and kickbacks.
Back to Asia again. In this global age, it seems many of the Asian minority students growing up and educated on this side of the Pacific are nowadays irresistably attracted by the “powerful cultural magnets” that giant metropolises like Tokyo, Hongkong, Shanghai and Seoul have become. We of the prime of our careers to the seniors age bracket must also make an effort not to get “left behind.”