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An Unconventional Gap Year

Children gain an enormous amount by being exposed to other family units. Living in another culture, which is what each family is, is enlightening, challenging, scary and often fun.
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Since September of this year, my daughter's boyfriend has been living with us -- or more precisely, with her, in her bedroom. Violet is eighteen (although she was seventeen when he moved in) and Nile recently turned nineteen, and while the situation has made sense to me from the start, it's increasingly dawned on me that most people seem to think it's insane. So I thought I'd try to explain my thinking -- about teen sexuality, about shame, about respect and trust for one's children and what they might or might not be ready to take on.

Violet and Nile started dating last year, when she was a junior and he was a senior. They'd been good friends for ages and gotten into some trouble together over the years. She'd actually been romantically involved with his best friend for awhile, so when I started hearing Nile's name more often than usual, I at first thought it was just another casual high school hook-up, a phase. But it persisted. Before long she would stay out late with him both weekend nights, and then he became a frequent guest at our dinner table. On school nights I found myself negotiating both what time he had to leave (9pm? 10pm? 11pm?) and how long they could stay in her room with the door closed. For Nile it was Senior Spring, but for Violet it was the crunch of junior year, and she had work to do.

Then summer came, and Nile's graduation. His mom Deb and I feared heartbreak looming, and we watched with bated breath. He flew to Europe for a few weeks with his buddies and Violet called T-Mobile to arrange a $5 plan for calling Europe. I was thrilled when the bill came and impressed with her initiative. Then she took off to compete in a six-week horse show in Manchester, VT. The long and the short of it is that they stayed together through the summer via texts and phone calls and visits, and then Nile joined us in August for a family vacation to Martha's Vineyard, where I allowed them to share a room.

Around that time, Deb called me to report that Nile was thinking of deferring college for a year. It was clear to us both that this was probably a decision borne of a few factors. Anyone could see that Nile might benefit from a gap year to gain confidence and life experience -- a year to really think about what he might actually want out of college -- but it was also clear that their relationship was playing a role. My position at the time? I wasn't thrilled, but what could I do? As a mother, albeit not his, I could see that a year off might be best for Nile. I also knew how happy the relationship was making Violet and didn't have any concrete reason to object. Over the next few weeks as the decision was being finalized, Nile started sleeping at our house frequently, and I finally said to Violet "so, is the plan for Nile to take his gap year at our house? She shyly nodded. "Yes, is that ok?"

I said that we could try it out, provisionally, but these were my rules: She had to get all her schoolwork done, as rigorously as ever, including the thirteen college applications she was planning. Nile had to take out the trash and walk our dog Muffin every day in exchange for room and board. He also had to get up every morning and look for work -- no sleeping in on weekdays. And then I said, we'll see how it goes...

I called my ex, ran it by him, and called Deborah and did the same. My feeling was that I knew my daughter and I knew that this was both what she wanted and that she could handle it. Not every kid could at that age, nor would they want it. But she did. And I didn't relish the thought of them running around trying to find places to have sex, or craving sleeping in the same bed and not being allowed to. Why shouldn't their love and commitment be honored and encouraged?

When people hear that Nile lives with us, they often ask "Where are Nile's parents?!" as if perhaps he's been abandoned or was raised by wolves. They live in Tribeca, just a few miles from us, and they are lovely. They adore their son and he them.

On the most obvious level, Nile's nineteen. Isn't that the time people are supposed to leave home? Ready to leave home? He drives his mom to Trader Joe's once a week. He and Violet go to their apartment for visits and sleepovers sometimes, and Nile's parents spent Thanksgiving with us at our place.

We're a big family -- four kids and three dogs -- and Nile's an only child in a family with a cat. So this adventure has probably served some longing in him to experience a bustling family life. And for all my kids, but particularly my only son, Nile has served their fantasy of having an older brother.

It's always been clear to me that children gain an enormous amount by being exposed to other family units. Living in another culture, which is what each family is, is enlightening, challenging, scary and often fun. It's freedom without having to go too far from home. For Nile, having to navigate the craziness and odd customs of our particular family (the reliance on placemats, the cursing, the stink of hockey equipment, the twin thirteen year olds screaming over a sweater) has got to be a learning experience akin to any teen travel gap year abroad. Also eye-opening is the challenge of having to engage close-up and constantly with other adults in quasi-parental roles. I've seen, in the course of a year, the way Nile has opened up with me, they way he's gotten comfortable with my sometimes un-orthodox ways, the way he trusts me. It's a gift for any of us to form those sorts of connections, and I'd wager more so for a young adult just starting to learn how to navigate the world.

The whole situation has worked out better than any of us could have imagined. In the Fall I'd often come home in the late afternoon to find Violet on her bed studying Japanese flash cards or working on the Common App, with Nile next to her reading Tim O'Brien or Donna Tartt.
During Violet's early high school years I endured many sleepless night and cell phone arguments waiting for her to come home, worried about where she was, what she was doing. This year I can count on one hand the number of times she and Nile have stayed out past 2am. The norm is that they're in bed by midnight. The drinking and the pot-smoking of days past are just that, firmly in the past, and instead we have two happy young adults who are learning how to live and love together under my watchful eye.

As for Nile's growth, I may feel almost as proud as Deb: He earned a certificate in bartending, worked four months as an assistant at a pre-school, two months for a contractor, helped me as a part time assistant when we moved homes, has been seeing a tutor to keep his academic skills sharp, and joined a gym and built up some huge muscles. He's become a full member of our family - teases Violet's younger siblings, cooks them dinner when needed, walks the dogs, takes it when I yell at him about his messy shelves, you name it.

Violet has been happier than I've ever seen her. She applied to all thirteen colleges (got in to eight of them!) without blinking an eye, and more importantly without me ever having to nudge, or yell, or even proofread! Her cell phone alarm goes off once a day to remind her to take her birth control pills. They cook together, watch movies constantly, even go to the occasional museum. Sometimes she goes off for a sleepover at a girlfriend's house and Nile may goes out with his guy friends when they are home from college, but most of then time they are just together, more together that I could ever imagine being with anyone, and they seem blissfully in sync.

And for my three other children, all young adolescents themselves, Violet and Nile, or Niolet as we sometimes call them (to their annoyance), have been an inspiration. In this culture of hook-ups and blow jobs as party favors, my younger kids have lived with an example of teenage love that beats most of what they've seen among adults, their own parents included. I hope they'll be hard pressed to easily settle for anything less, now that they have seen what it possible.

Another graduation is approaching, this one Violet's. She and Nile have wisely, with relatively little help from their parents, opted to go to separate colleges, although they'll both be in New England. I'm worried that their separation will be hard, but I feel certain that it's been worth it, that their memories of this year will be sweet and lasting.