FOR MORE THAN fourteen years I have been a husband and for nearly nine a father, but for several months this year I was a bachelor again. My wife took our children to visit her relatives, who live in distant parts of the world. I was supposed to use the time to finish writing a book.

Much of my bachelor life went as expected. I stayed up too late at night, and in the morning I groggily read the papers in bed. I ate dinner with a book open on the table while watching the TV news. I didn’t get as much done as I had hoped. I dwelt on something Bogart said in The African Queen: A man lives alone, he gets to living like a hog.

But one thing happened that I had not expected. I started to feel young.

It was not a question of years. I was thirty-five and middle-aged when I took my family to the airport, and thirty-five and youthful when they returned. The difference was my sense of the possibilities left open to me.

For more than eight years my wife and I had obeyed instinct and concentrated on introducing our children to the world. First they had to learn how to eat, then to walk, then to talk—then to throw balls and read books and keep themselves alive in a swimming pool. They saw airports and they saw farms; they confronted such esoterica as the multiplication tables. Our efforts could hardly be considered a crusade to produce wonder-children, as the neighbors who shudder when our boys play pirates or gladiators will too readily confirm. We spent our time teaching the children because they were the ones with a future; our role as parents, it seemed, was to draw on the capital we had previously built up.

I was already aware of one way in which being a parent made me feel old—apart from the chronic fatigue. Almost every day, the children grew and changed, forcing me to realize that I too must be changing, and in a less desirable direction. But until they went away, I hadn’t understood the deeper reason for my weariness: compared with the children, I had no potential anymore. In my work I must regularly learn about new subjects, but I don’t really develop new skills—at least not obvious ones. What I’m best at doing, and most enjoy, I learned long ago—before I had children, when I was “young.” I could teach my sons things that I’d learned as a child, but I couldn’t help them with, say, fly-tying or Spanish, neither of which I’d mastered. As many skills as I would ever possess, I seemed already to have.

After a week or two on my own I crossed a divide: no longer responsible for teaching someone else, I began to think I had potential once again. I learned how to ice skate. That may not seem such a big thing (unless, like me, you grew up in the desert), but it was the first new skill I had acquired in at least eight years. For the first time since high school I spent time at the piano— not coaxing my son through “Frère Jacques” but entertaining the thought that my own playing might actually improve. I read for reasons other than meeting the next deadline. I understood why Yuppies are called “young,” even though many of them are as old as I am—and why so many factory workers in their early twenties, already parents, had told me they felt old. Without children, life’s possibilities are still open. With children, they seem closed—at least for a time.

I cried when my wife and children came back—and I was crying out of happiness, not regret. Not even my briefly regained youth made up for how much I missed them. I still believe that the relative selflessness demanded by parenthood makes the world better than it would otherwise be. But my time alone left me with a small comfort against the knowledge that soon my children really will be gone. Maybe I feel older now than I will when I am fifty. Maybe it is just a matter of time until I have possibilities again. Maybe this is what my father understood when, his children grown and gone, he astonished us all by buying spurs and a hat and joyously learning to ride.

—James Fallows