By Greg Erlandson
“Your children like young olive plants around your table” (Ps 128).
I have discovered a new post-Christmas parenting ritual that you may not have heard about. You remember Christmas, right? That’s the feast where the kids come back home, open the gifts, dine like there’s no tomorrow, sleep in like there’s no today — all for a week or more.
The way this ritual goes, sometime during the days that follow Christmas, you get together with other empty nesters. You can be anywhere — at the watercooler, on your cellphone, sprawled out exhausted on your bed. You gather with your parent peers and you marvel about these children you have sired and suckled and launched on their way.
You marvel that they are fully functioning members of society. Independent. Self-reliant. Employed! And you marvel that, when they return to the family manse, they immediately lose all of those social skills.
These children perform great feats out in the world, caring for the sick, teaching the ignorant, building buildings, earning real money. But when they come home, that high-functioning self-reliance goes right out the window.
Their clothes suddenly are overcome by the gravitational pull of the bedroom, bathroom and living room floors and collapse in heaps. Their suitcases are not emptied so much as disemboweled. Glasses and cups wander into bedrooms and cannot find their way out again.
Downstairs, chargers and wires are suddenly protruding from every outlet. Phones and tablets and laptops multiply like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Bodies slump on Barcaloungers or collapse on carpets, watching a video on their phones and keeping an eye on the football game on TV.
And while you or your spouse, or both you and your spouse, are laboring in the kitchen over turkey or ham or cookies or pancakes or whatever food is in demand, your olive plants are binge watching “Parks and Rec” or the newest Amazon series.
And the beloved offspring whose arrival you looked forward to so ardently forget all that you taught them: that dishes need to be washed and clothes folded and trash taken out. The details of family life you instilled in them for 20 years are erased as if the guys from “Men in Black” showed up and wiped their memories clean.
And in puppy-like innocence, they look up at you when you raise your voice in an appeal for help, enjoying how your face is turning red but apparently having no understanding of the words that are tumbling out of your mouth. Or if they do, they each look at the other and ask why he or she is not doing her share because after all, “I just emptied the dishwasher three nights ago.”
They do have the strength to make pronouncements, however. Like the son who uses the holiday reunion to announce to his very religious mother that there is no God. Or the daughter who observes that milk is an abomination of nature because of how cows are treated and that plastic straws are just evil.
And as this parenting ritual proceeds, as you gather with your friends, and laugh over each story and sympathize over the utter exhaustion of being a parent in the early 21st century, you remember that maybe you did some of this stuff to your own parents. And you remind each other that you do love these kids, and now that they’re gone, you are missing them already. But next time, you all promise, it will be different.
And then you excuse yourself to go mail the phone charger they left behind.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.