Category Archives: Kids

Watch Them Grow, Then Let Them Go…

A few weeks ago, I was on a run in my neighborhood and passed a house where three kids were playing in the driveway. A boy about 6 years old was pulling his preschool-aged brother around in a wagon, and a toddler was running after them. Their dad was sitting in a camp chair just outside the open garage. He looked a little frazzled. We waved. I ran on. I wanted to stop and tell him a few things:

“Hang in there, buddy. It’s all going to be okay. Don’t blink. I know the end of this phase of your life seems far, far away and you’re just trying to make it until lunchtime, but I promise you that it all goes by So Damn Fast. Everyone says to enjoy it as it’s happening, which is almost impossible, but please, take it from me, enjoy it now because when it’s over and the last one moves out, if you haven’t lived in the moment with these kids, you’re going to be thinking, Where did all the time go?

Can you tell that I’m a brand-new empty nester? It’s been a ride this summer. We were kind of spoiled in that our kids were spread out in age, so we had at least one in high school for the last 11 years. It was a fun decade: lots of soccer matches, cross-country meets, fall plays, spring musicals, speech competitions, etc. When our last one got to high school, I tried to imagine that day way out in the future when she would be walking the halls for the last time and we’d have no good reason to be hanging around the school; I couldn’t. And definitely when she hit senior year, things started accelerating. Most of the year, I was filled with excitement for the possibilities that were stretching out in front of her, but also a little bit of (actually a whole lot of) dread for what would come next for my lovely wife Jen and me.

Within days of our first child being born, a co-worker of mine said to me, “Hold them close as much as they will let you because before you know it, they’re grown up and gone.” I thought, Sounds like a you problem, lady. Then when our kids were entering their teen years, parents of older children were saying, “Wait until they get to high school; those years are going to fly by faster than you think.” So I thought I was prepared for how quickly those years would go. I was not. Days when I was trying to make it to the next one were days when I should have been present and engaged. As Rod Stewart sings in “Young Turks,” “Because life is so brief and time is a thief when you’re undecided, and like a fistful of sand it can slip right through your hands.” Ouch.

Near the end of our youngest’s senior year, I ran into a friend at the grocery store; she was going through the same impending empty nest stage that I was. She said to me, “I told my daughter, ‘I know it’s going to be hard on me, but I can’t imagine what Mr. Dudley must be going through. I mean, he’s so close with his kids and so involved with his last one.'” After graduation, another parent reached out to me and asked, “You ok? This is hard on all of us, but I’m particularly thinking about you at this time.” And just before our daughter and her friends went off to college, a few of them stopped by for one last visit. One of them told me, “My parents were talking about you. My dad said that even though I’m the last of his five kids to graduate, he can only wonder how Mr. Dudley is handling this.” What the heck? And keep in mind that these were all parents who were going through the exact same empty nest situation as me! I thought, Why is everyone worried about me more than anyone else? I’m fine; I will be fine.

Then we started packing stuff for our daughter’s dorm move-in journey. And it started to hit me. Oh boy.

Here’s where I should say, I realize we’re in a unique and (to use a word popular with the younger folks) privileged position, being able to afford to send our kids off to college and have that moving-out-at-18 experience. And even more uniquely, I’ve basically been a stay-at-home dad for (gulp) 22 years, save for a few stints freelancing and working as a custodian in an office. So part of the mixed-up ball of emotions I’m sorting through is the fact that I have major changes on the horizon. Over the years, when other parents have asked the inevitable, “So, what do you do?” question at social events, I’ve said, “I’m a stay-at-home dad.” But last year, someone followed up with, “Aren’t your kids fully grown humans by now?”

Jen has been a little more graceful with these changes over the years. When our firstborn was going off to college, I thought it would be fun to make a playlist for the 4-hour drive to their dorm, filled with songs that meant something to us as a family or had messages in them: several “High School Musical” songs, “All Your Favorite Bands” by Dawes, “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa, “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves, “Good Riddance” by Green Day. As soon as Jen and I said goodbye, watched our child walk into the residence hall without us, and hopped in the minivan, I was already a blubbering mess. “Can you put on the playlist?” I said between gulps. Gently, Jen said, “Maybe we should hold off on the playlist for a bit.” “PUT ON THE PLAYLIST!!!” I sobbed. So that’s how I’ve handled the big changes over the years.

This summer, on a walk, I said to Jen, “So that’s it? We’re just supposed to raise them up, watch them grow, and then let them go?” Jen said, “Pretty much. That was the deal.” Of course I knew this was the plan from the day they were born, to raise independent, resilient people who could go off into the world and survive on their own without me. I just didn’t think it would actually reach this endpoint so quickly.

This last year, I felt these big and small moments like depth charges going off in my soul’s ocean. I never knew when they’d hit or what damage the shock waves would cause. I’d be at a cross-country meet and think, This is the last time I’ll be at this park watching a race, and I’d have to choke back my emotions. My daughter usually drove to school, but one day in her last month she wanted me to drop her off and pick her up. As I waited in line for her to come out of the school, I watched the hundreds of students stream out and thought about the thousands of days I took her to school over the years, first when she was a baby and I pushed her in this purple jogging stroller as I walked the other two to grade school, then when she was mobile and would run ahead of me and I’d push the empty jogging stroller to keep up with her (for years, random people would approach me in the grocery store and around town and say, “Hey, you’re that purple stroller guy!”), then when she was walking to school alongside me, then when she wanted me to drive her to high school, and finally when she was old enough to drive herself. Sitting in the school’s circle drive, I had to blink those tears away, put on a smile when she got in the car, and say, “Yo! How was your day?”

I spent a lot of time over the last 4 years running or biking next to our youngest as she trained for her sports seasons. (The bike came in when she became too fast for me to keep up on her speed days.) This last year I felt as if I needed to pass along wisdom and advice to her that I may have forgotten. Sometimes it wasn’t well organized and I sounded like Polonius in Act 1, Scene 3 of “Hamlet,” giving advice to his university-going son Laertes (that’s a reference for the English majors out there). Hopefully some of what I said made sense and helps her in the college life. I’ll let you know in 4 to 5 years.

Our last child was our loudest, so the house is startlingly quiet now. I’m in the “look how clean I can make our closets and basement” stage of empty nesting. I go for long runs and long walks. I try not to end up wandering past the high school too much. I listen to music while I walk; the other day I had to turn off the “Hamilton” soundtrack. I was at “It’s Quiet Uptown”: “If you see him in the street, walking by himself, talking to himself, have pity, he is working through the unimaginable.” I know the next phase of Jen’s and my life is here; I’m trying not to get too attached to and nostalgic for the previous one. It’s important to make sure that when one door closes, you look for other ones and don’t keep trying to reopen the closed door. I’ll get there.

Last week, I ran into a friend walking her dog; her youngest kid is 4 years older than mine, so she’s a few steps ahead of us in the process. She asked me how I was hanging in there (again, I get it! No one was surprised that I was the sniveling crybaby!). I talked at length about how hard it is to adjust, and how I find it difficult even to walk into our kids’ empty bedrooms. Jen turned one into an AirBnB-quality bedroom; the other we’re not touching for a while, so it’s a shrine to our two younger kids. Finally, my friend said, “I know what you’re going through! But here’s the thing: You will get over it and get used to it. It’s going to be nice not to clean the house on a daily basis, there will be less laundry and dishes, and when all the kids are home and you have a full house, it’s a loud, messy hurricane rolling through and you will look forward to getting back to the clean, quiet life that you’ve gotten used to. Trust me.”

It’s been 2 weeks so far. And it’s everything I experienced with the first two, and it’s more intense than I thought it would be with the last one, but here’s a twist: I didn’t account for the fact that our youngest kid would text me many, many times daily and want to talk on the phone every chance we’re available. We’ve already visited her at school once, and she’s coming home this weekend. So maybe I didn’t raise the independent, leave-it-all-behind kid that I thought I was. (And maybe I’m not too upset about that. But don’t tell my kid that!)

Rod Stewart, “Young Turks”

Dawes, “All Your Favorite Bands”

Wiz Khalifa, “See You Again”

Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”

Green Day, “Good Riddance”

Your Child Is Not You

A lesson 18 years in the making: Your child is not you. One would think I would have figured this out earlier, like when our oldest, the boy, grew to be 6 inches taller than me. So many times over the years (as recently as this week), I’ve heard, “He reminds me so much of you!” and “He has your eyebrows!” and “He’s like a mini-you!” (It’s been several years since I’ve heard that last one; I’m a mini-him now.) What finally helped this sink in for me is the college search we embarked upon over the last year.

Honestly, the boy could not have made this any easier for us. From his sophomore year of high school on, he said that he wanted to go to a college that met these criteria: 1. It was a big school, so that if he changed majors, he would have many options. 2. It was not in a big city. 3. It was reasonably close to home. That was about it.

Fairly quickly, we settled on two possibilities (again, how easy was he going to make this for us?): the alma mater of my lovely wife Jen and me (“We’re loyal to you, Illinois…”) and another Big Ten school (“Go Green! Go White!”).


One of these people is the father. One of them is the son. (Hint: Only the son can reach the top shelf in the kitchen cabinets.)

I should state here that we were always clear that we were not going to put any unreasonable pressure on the kid to enroll at our alma mater. As I explained to the boy over and over again, “You should feel free to go wherever you want. You are under no obligation to attend my school. Even though it is one of the top 40 universities in the country according to every major college guide. And it has a top-five program in your chosen field. Plus it is close to home. And your mother and I had four of the greatest years of our lives there, got outstanding educations, and met people there who have become lifelong friends. Also, every other article of clothing that I own is orange and blue. No pressure.” (See how I played that? I am subtle.)

From the beginning, Dear Old Alma Mater U. was his top choice. I didn’t even have to steer him that way. He and I made a visit to the campus when he was invited to Scholars Day. The university reps and students put on the usual display (“You are smart, and we hope you come here; undergrads get to do graduate-level research; this is a big school with a small-school flavor,” etc.). The boy and I had an hour to kill, so I gave him a quick tour of campus before the official tour. I went overboard with the minutiae: “On your right is Altgeld Hall, designed by Nathan Ricker, the first graduate of an architecture program in the United States…” I couldn’t help it; my tour was more detailed than the official one.

Then he got invited to something similar at the other school. This one was more involved, and he was invited back to take a test to earn scholarships. The praise from the university reps was even more effusive. A direct quote from the admissions director: “We want you. I’ll go further: We need you. You will make us a better school.” Yikes! I thought; these folks are putting on the hard sell.

People would ask me which way the boy was leaning, and I usually had a percentage (completely made up in my head, not having anything to do with the reality of the situation): “Right now, he is 90 percent sure he will go to my alma mater,” or, “There’s really only a slim chance, maybe 5 percent, that he will go out of state,” or, “Really, the only thing that would change his mind is if the out-of-state school offered him so much money that it became substantially more affordable than the in-state school. Not likely.”

Then, something bizarre happened: The out-of-state school offered him so much money that it became substantially more affordable than the in-state school. Then the college-search process became easy. My son didn’t see a significant difference between the schools, so he reasoned (as did Jen, I might add), why go to the more expensive one? As decision day neared, I looked for all sorts of ways to justify my clinging to the hope that he would go to my school, but really, it was more of a process of my letting go of expectations and getting out of my own comfort zone.

Remember when I titled this blog post “Your Child Is Not You”? Here’s the thing: I could list a hundred different ways that my school is better than the other one, but it’s always going to come out like this to my kid: “You should go to my school because…” And it honestly doesn’t matter what the rest of the sentence is, because it sure sounds like I’m telling my kid what to do and not letting him make up his mind for himself. My school was great for me; maybe it would be for him, but maybe not. The actress/producer/comedienne Amy Poehler, in her memoir Yes Please, uses the phrase, “Good for her! Not for me.”

I was talking with my dad the other day about something, and he reflected back on when he first became a father nearly 50 years ago. He said, “I remember thinking, This will be great, I made so many mistakes in my life that I will tell my kids what to do or what not to do when they reach similar situations, and they will thank me profusely and their lives will be so much easier than mine.” You know how this story ends: None of his kids wanted to listen to him, and we all made similar mistakes. As he said, the cliche is that someone has to experience something for themselves to understand, and it’s true: even with a parent telling us, for example, not to touch the stove, we have to touch the stove ourselves to truly figure out that, hey, we probably shouldn’t touch it.

I saw a piece on ESPN recently about Tiger Woods and his relationship with his father, Earl Woods. Early in Tiger’s career, when he was having incredible success but also dealing with the celebrity that follows it, his father said to him, “I know exactly what you are going through.” Tiger replied, “No, you don’t.” That perfectly sums up the parent-child relationship. As parents, we think we know what is best for our kids because we believe that we went through similar circumstances. On the other hand, kids think their parents have no idea what they are going through. The truth is somewhere in between, and it’s up to us as parents to figure out how to pass on life lessons without lecturing.

For me, it seems as if the best way is to keep my mouth shut. Plus, do my own thing and let my kids see how I handle adversity and decision-making. Because clearly, wearing orange and blue almost daily didn’t work the way I thought it would. Now I have to add some green and white to my wardrobe.

It All Goes By So Fast

Sometime around when my son was in the fourth grade, I made the mistake of blinking. Now he’s a senior in high school.


Fun Ferris Bueller fact: Matthew Broderick was 23 years old during filming. I always thought there was something “21 Jump Street” about him playing a high schooler.

Whenever I post pictures of my kids on Facebook, a longtime friend  will see how big my kids are getting and ask, “How the heck did this happen?” Answer: I have no idea. Because I was a teen in the 1980s, I am legally obligated to quote from a John Hughes movie in this post: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That’s Ferris Bueller, for the two of you who don’t know.

I am trying to look around. It’s hard when you have a life outside of that one kid’s to be present for all his milestones. Sometimes I am so caught up in the day-to-day (my dad likes to say that the days drag on but the years fly by) that I’m not even aware of a milestone slipping by. When my son finished grade school, my other two kids were still there, so there wasn’t a “we’ll never walk these halls again” moment. Same with preschool, middle school, etc. Now our middle child, the patient one, is a freshman. A freshman! And as a matter of fact, our youngest (light of our lives) is in her last year of grade school. (Look for my “We’ll Never Walk These Halls Again” blog post in May.)

I realize that it’s the beginning of the school year and I am already getting all maudlin about the end of it. I’ll try to “Be Here Now,” as George Harrison sang (he cribbed that title from Ram Dass). George says, “The mind that wants to wander ’round a corner is an unwise mind.”

The thing is, my kids seem to like high school. It makes no sense to me. My lovely wife Jen certainly enjoyed it. I hated high school.

What exactly did I hate about high school? If you say “everything,” you’d be mostly right. (I am exaggerating, of course. The chocolate chip cookies in the cafeteria were a particular highlight.) I did meet Jen in high school, so there’s that. But we started dating once I went away to college. I spent most of my school days doing one of three things:

  1. Running
  2. Avoiding bullies
  3. Studying

One of them was a career-preparation activity. One of them was a life-preservation activity. I should point out here that bullying was seen in a different light back in the day. There was more of a “kids will be kids, there’s not much we can do about it” attitude. It was like Lord of the Flies in the boys’ locker room. If you really want to get an idea for what life was like at my high school, watch any John Hughes movie. I always imagined myself like Jake Ryan in “Sixteen Candles.” Pretty sure I was closer to the Anthony Michael Hall geek. Strangely, I loved my big suburban high school and getting lost among the 3,200 kids who roamed the halls. The Beach Boys put it this way: “Now what’s the matter buddy, ain’t you heard of my school? It’s number one in the state…”

But enough about my miserable existence before the halcyon days of college. As for what the kids seem to like, certainly they are involving themselves in school way more than I did. Already, the freshman is in the art club, drama club, color guard, band…am I missing something? Probably. I’ll let you know the next time I’m driving her somewhere in the minivan. The senior is running cross country and soccer simultaneously. (Not literally simultaneously; that would look strange. He alternates from one practice to another.) They are packing their schedules this fall.

I’m enjoying attending their big events, knowing we might not pass this way again: the cross-country meets, the soccer games (Senior Night is only a month away), color guard performing in the football halftime spectacles. I’m trying to be present when I’m with these kids, and especially this boy before he is off to college in (yikes!) less than a year.

In Counting Crows’ “A Long December,” Adam Duritz sings, “I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they pass.” That’s me, pretty much, for the next 9 months. And then the 3 years after that for my middle child. And then the 4 more for our youngest…

“A Long December” by Counting Crows

“Be Here Now” by George Harrison

“Be True To Your School” by the Beach Boys