Last August, I handed my first born over to the U.S. Army. Joel had just graduated high school, and he decided that he’d like to join the U.S. Army Reserves to serve his country and to help pay for college. I went with him to talk to the recruitment officer, and Sargeant Jackson sold us both on the plan. But still, on the day he was to head off to basic training followed by AIT, I broke down I cried through our entire going away breakfast and finally, I regained my composure as we left him at the recruitment office. Why was I sad? Well, if you’re a mama, you probably understand ALL of my worries. But one thing that struck me was this: This isn’t what I planned for my life. I never imagined my baby boy training to defend our country, learning to use high-powered weapons, enduring drill sergeants yelling at him and actually liking it.
Upon returning from his Army training in January, Joel spent a semester at a community college near home as he planned to transfer to KSU. This August, we delivered Joel to Manhattan, Kansas with much joy. Joel has always wanted to go to K-State; he’s basically bled purple since he was in the womb. This was always the plan — Joel would attend KSU. So we happily moved him into a musty old dorm room, as his father and I believe that everyone should live in the dorm at least once. And yet a day later, Joel, new to a KSU fraternity, moved to the frat house when a spot suddenly opened up. This was definitely not the picture I had in my mind when I was snuggling my newborn son in the middle of the night after a feeding. My son — in the Army and in a fraternity? This wasn’t what I planned.
The thing is, I get caught up with pictures in my mind. These pictures — visions of what my kids should be like, how a family should operate, what parenthood should look like — trip me up. Instead of enjoying what I do have, these visions sometimes make me crazy. But the past nineteen years of motherhood has taught me to let go of my preconceived ideas or even societal expectations. There are many ways to be a good mom. There are many ways to have a happy family. There are many ways to grow a son into an amazing man. For Joel, his way to manhood has been paved by the Army and by his new fraternity.
Before he left for basic training, Joel had a pretty typical 18-year-old cockiness. Don’t get me wrong — I loved his quick wit and his confidence. But hiding out behind this confidence was youth and inexperience. When Joel returned from the Army, the changes were shocking. Joel came back with real confidence. He had skills. He could shoot military weapons with accuracy. He successfully passed PT tests, putting his high school cross country skills to good use. Joel learned to drive a Humvee and trained in the military police. He came back with a love of fitness, believing that exercise is an important component to a healthy life. Basically, Joel returned more of a man and less of a boy. He came back disciplined and focused. And though I worry daily about him being deployed, I am glad that he became an Army Reservist. I think that joining the Army helped Joel understand how to reach his full potential, and I’m not sure this would have happened as quickly if he’d gone to college right after high school.
Another thing that has pushed Joel toward manhood is being a part of a fraternity. To be fair, Joel’s dad and I were GDI’s (gosh darn independents). We were not Greek. I have always had preconceived notions about fraternities, I must admit. And yes, some of my notions are true. But a few weeks ago, Rich and I drove to Manhattan for a Covid-safe, outdoor Family Day. When we got there, Joel was selling beads to raise money for the fraternity. He was absolutely in his element, socializing and chatting people up. (Yeah, he’s an extrovert, like his mom.) I could tell that he enjoyed living in the house with the other guys. The fraternity has daily study hours, so Joel’s grades are in check. He has some great friends. He seemed really happy and healthy and focused. During our visit, there was a short fraternity ceremony; after hearing about the accomplishments within the fraternity, I realized that I had been wrong about fraternities — or at least this one. I could see how this experience (even with the typical frat-boy shenanigans) could be beneficial for Joel.
These past nineteen years of motherhood have taught me so much. I’ve finally learned to ignore the pictures in my head of what a “proper” child (or family) should look like. I’ve tried to let my children grow into who they were meant to be. I can’t force my path on Joel. I have to let his life be his own, and I have to trust his choices. There are many ways to grow into manhood, and so far, Joel’s on the right track. He is happy, healthy, and figuring things out. That’s all this mama could ask for.