Things might not go the way you plan, for your kids or their fish

Midlife Sentence | kids don't always turn out the way you think, neither do their fish

Colin passed us both in the kitchen this morning, on his way out the back door. He had wet hair, no shoes and was carrying a clear, plastic cup with something in it. We watched him grab a shovel out of the shed and start working at something in a corner of the yard, his back to us.

“What’s he doing?”

“Probably collecting something for his tanks. Rocks? I don’t know.” Mike went back to his computer.

Colin returned the shovel back to the shed and came back in.

“One of my fish died.”

“Oh honey. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, I could see it had dropsy last night. I knew it probably wouldn’t live.”

Dropsy, he explained, makes a fish’s scales stick out like a pine cone, instead of lay flat. It’s also an indicator of liver failure.

“I guess I never thought about fish having livers,” I said.

“I knew fish have eyebrows, but not livers,” Mike said.*

I didn’t know about the eyebrow thing, either. Clearly I haven’t been keeping up.

It wasn’t long ago I couldn’t fathom doing anything other than throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into whatever either of our kids wanted to take on. Someone decides to play an instrument? We sign a lease on a contraption that costs more than I remember paying for a semester of college. Someone wants to play a sport? We agree to coach and referee and team-parent sports neither of us has ever played. A couple years ago our oldest decided he wanted to go on exchange, and we bought him a new suitcase and studied Danish for months.

That’s the way this parenting thing has gone for us: someone expresses the vaguest sense of an interest in something, and we throw ourselves into it with abandon. Up until last week we still owned a mesh bag full of about half a dozen soccer balls, team jerseys, cones, and a packet full of drills we’d used on a bunch of pre-school aged boys, most of whom would abandon the sport within a couple years. But who knew at the time? They might have gone on to one day be world cup contenders, or maybe at least earn a scholarship.

I’ve loved parenting both our boys all the way through the ages, but I especially love the teen years. I don’t care what anyone thinks, adolescents are way more entertaining and engaging than toddlers or babies, or members of any other age group for that matter.

But one thing I didn’t anticipate is the degree to which they’re becoming their own people right now, and how surprising that is.

Case in point: I didn’t see the fish thing coming, and probably wouldn’t have chosen it as a hobby for my kid. Fish are complicated. They require feeding and water changes and lights on timers and filters that could fail. They aren’t portable and require people who know how to manage them if you want to travel. Fish have livers that fail. And eyebrows too, apparently.

As they age, both our kids are starting to take paths that we might not have chosen for them. Jack wants to study internationally, now, in a program designed to attract an entire workforce of expats to a country we’ve never visited, and from which he might not return. At least not for good. And Colin’s taken up this fish thing that doesn’t always fit in with my quest for a simpler life and that also might make him less enthusiastic about traveling anywhere longer than a three-day weekend, or for going on an exchange of his own.**

Meanwhile, our kids’ peers are busy making life decisions that have nothing to do with what their parents might have envisioned, from opting out of medical school, to coming to grips with an identity seemingly at odds with a word inscribed on a certificate of their birth.

Bottom line: Kids rarely turn into the adults we once thought they might be. It’s not bad. It just is.

When these people were littler, my friends and I found ourselves aghast at the difficulties of parenting what were then whirling dervishes who couldn’t be guaranteed not to pitch a fit in a public library, smear poop on the walls, or snot on our shirts.

“Nobody told us” was our rallying cry over mugs of mocha-chocha whatevers. We commiserated at that coffee shop with the lukewarm chocolate drinks that wouldn’t burn little mouths and the special, low table with coloring books to occupy little hands for a solid five minutes at a time while we caught a break.

Ultimately, we got things under control. We stuffed them into snow suits for ski lessons they whined about and attended Saturday morning clinics to learn the difference between balls and strikes. And because of that, they gained skills they might never use, shelves-full of participation trophies, some friends, and maybe a good idea of how teams work and how far their own, two legs, and a little hand-eye coordination will carry them.

Now that they’re nearly grown, we’re seeing how those efforts took root. Sometimes the results surprise us. Sometimes we’re biting our tongues, struggling to keep from micro-managing their new-found independence.

They’re going to make mistakes these days that we can’t fix. They’re going to learn things that they’ll be turning around and teaching us. They’re becoming people we never imagined.

Like my kid, quietly burying a fish in the back yard. A fish he just describes to us as “the red one.” I’m as sure he knows the genus and species of the thing, as I am confident he knows those particular descriptors would mean nothing to us – the ones who didn’t know fish have livers that can fail, or that the way their scales are arranged can indicate overall piscine health.

* Colin, upon reviewing this prior to publication, tells me that fish do not, in fact, have eyebrows.

** He has also noted that his fish hobby won’t keep him from traveling. So that’s a relief.


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  1. Yes to all of this, Beth. I’m traveling the very same road with my 22 and 24 year-olds … My two educate me every day and I do believe it keeps me young. Although that struggle to avoid micro-managing is somewhat challenging, is it not?

  2. I love this post and can relate to so many of the things you mention! This parenting gig is tough and I often tease my kids and say “If you just listen to you mom and do everything I tell you to do, you will be just fine!” Ha ha. My oldest son loves fish too and knows so many random facts about them. The other day he discovered that his fish had some sort of disease so he bought some medicine for them. Who knew you could do that??