I became a ‘passenger seat parent’ so my child could take the wheel in their life

Annabelle Gurwitch is a New York Times best-selling author and comedian. Her essay "Becoming a Parent in a Passenger Seat" is from her book "You go when?" Customized.
My 22 year old moved out of my house this week after graduating from college in 2020 COVID class. This was not at all the scenario I had envisioned when imagining the day my child - pronouns: she, she, hers - would move into their first apartment after college.
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I raced through the house looking for totems to send them off with. This could serve as a subtle reminder to call her mom when I found an old KFC nap. We had the ritual of stopping near the KFC on the first day of class each year, or was it maybe the first Friday of the month or maybe every Friday? That single surviving damp cloth reminded me of all of our rituals that have come and gone and how unlikely are those we are now observing.
PHOTO: Annabelle and Ezra on the baseball field when they were younger. (Annabelle Gurwitch)
Car trips, especially when puberty was approaching, provided the ideal setting for conversations that ranged from classwork to raving about. With my eyes glued to the road, her in the back and then the passenger seat, the car offered close physical proximity but without the need to make eye contact. It was a dependable opportunity for Intel when my kid started claiming their own agency.
During the really tough stretch before Ezra got sober (now four years) I would spend at least one day a week looking for hiding spots for utensils. When I found the bongs - reused, reusable water bottles that were specially pricked - I assumed that their admonitions to supply our inventory were because I had successfully established an environmentally friendly ethos.
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When they returned home during college breaks, each re-entry period seemed to be similar to what I'd read about astronauts returning from long stretches in weightlessness and losing so much muscle mass that they had to learn to walk again. Ezra took a nap, watched cartoons, left dirty laundry strewn about the house, and snuck cereal into the bedroom.
PHOTO: Annabelle Gurwitch and her child Ezra on moving day at their college. (Annabelle Gurwitch)
I got a taste of “passenger seat education” on her 21st birthday when I teamed up with a group of friends near campus to celebrate her. It was the first time that I attended a birthday party in her honor that I hadn't planned. Then, as COVID swept across the nation, we took a step back toward adulthood. Like over 50% of American families, Ezra was housed at home, a paid internship was gone, and my child, who had worked in a restaurant throughout college, was now financially dependent on me. Her planned “boomeranging” required the development of new skills in order to survive that we are glued together around the clock.
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I had to learn to perfect "the mother poker face". As the only live body available, I'll become Ezra's test audience. Ezra studied experimental electronic music in college. How does it sound Darth Vader played at half speed, Alvin and the Chipmunks played at warp speed, whale calls and the screams of a million babies whose diapers need to be changed.
"Do you think it is good?" They were asked after playing a sample track.
"The world will let you know," I said, influencing a neutral expression.
PHOTO: Annabelle and Ezra in 2019. (Annabelle Gurwitch)
This really is the best of all possible answers because the only sure sign that something isn't going to be the next big thing is when your mom likes it. Admittedly, I was less successful in disguising my contempt for her new predilection for correcting perceived mistakes in my household habits.
We were both completely blind when I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in the fall of 2020. Now we walked cautiously on tiptoe around the house. I didn't want to add to their stress after graduation by being overly dependent on them, but on more than one occasion our roles have been reversed. "Mom, are you okay?" Ezra asked every day, comforting me when I collapsed one night, seized with fear and sadness and sobbing on the kitchen floor late at night.
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We had just hit the nine month mark when they announced they had to move out of the house. Given my impaired health, they wanted to find work and needed more (safe) social interaction. I knew it was the best. My health had stabilized, although I had secretly hoped that preparation would take months of planning. "We have to go through the budget and think about how we can find an apartment!" But I was already a passenger for the trip, because not only had they found an apartment with two friends, the kicker also found out that I didn't have to sign the rental agreement. One of the roommates had a better credit rating than me. A moving date has been set.
With our town still closed, we hurriedly loaded laundry baskets of clothes and linens, bags filled with toiletries, and even a mattress right on the sidewalk. When I moved into my house, my mom helped me organize my pantry and scrubbed my fridge with a toothbrush until it sparkled. Me? I held my breath and masked myself twice for a brisk tour of the apartment while the roommates helped each other create the conditions for their new home. I could see Ezra waving in the rearview mirror as I pulled back. When they looked ahead, behind the wheel of my car, they couldn't see the tears soaking the fabric of my mask.
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The irony is that while Ezra is still unsafe to be in a car together, Ezra is right in the driver's seat. They are employed and masked, socially distant meetings with friends are just a little less stressful and more frequent without my immediate concern about my well-being. And one day, in a future that can't come soon enough, I'll stop by them for a proper tour or they'll stop by to do a load of laundry. How intoxicating it will be to watch these perfectly normal, uneventful rites of passage.
I became a passenger in the passenger seat so my child could take control of their life. It originally appeared on goodmorningamerica.com

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