Spreading Her Wings

cheering woman student open arms at campusThere is a shift taking place in my life right now. As regular life continues to happen around me, I feel trapped in a time warp, a black hole of sorts.

A vortex of emotions.

The stack of boxes, bedding and trinkets has been growing for several weeks. Staged in the back room, away from the path my regular routine takes me through the house each day. The room that used to hold all things Little Tikes, LEGO and My Little Pony. Where imaginations turned boxes, blankets and couch cushions into castles. The game room, formerly known as the playroom.

Teens don’t like to hang out in a playroom, you know. Hence, the name change.

This summer has been deemed “The Longest Summer Ever” for my daughter, who graduated high school on June 17 and doesn’t start college classes until September 22.

College.

I can feel her absence already, as boxes are taped shut and “lasts” are marked off an imaginary list.

And in a twist that seems particularly cruel to a mother, I can clearly remember a time when I would have given my right foot to have a little break from parenting. Maybe an overnight with the grandparents or a few hours away while Dad mans the ship. When your kids are small and needy and so very BUSY, the mere thought that one day they will be out on their own and adulting might be the only thing that keeps you going.

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, the holy grail of parenting — the young adult child.

Because toddlers can be tough.

I honestly enjoyed parenting, even when I had to dole out a punishment or deliver a lecture. There were times when I cried, when they cried, times we all cried together. Through the foot stomping determination of a 3-year old to the eye rolls of a tween, I pushed ahead with new determination each and every day. Even after the toughest of days I would find myself standing at her bedside after she fell asleep, watching her chest rise and fall as the rhythm of her breathing brought me back to the starting line.

Ready to tackle another day.

Most days, I’m almost giddy that she’s going to college and choosing her own path. Some would say I have made it to the finish line, that I’m done parenting and can hang up my cape. Empty nest! More time for yourself! Freedom! These are the cheers I hear from my parenting crowd, many of whom still have tiny hands leaving fingerprints on the sliding glass door and pounds of Goldfish crackers ground into the carpeting in their minivan. They look wistful, envious maybe. I feel like I’m betraying my people if I don’t have fabulous plans to cruise to Alaska, take up yoga, get a tattoo or start my own organic food co-op.

But some days the tears pool right on the brink of my lashes.

Because I’m still parenting.

What did I forget to tell her? Is there one must-have piece of advice I was supposed to frame for her dorm room wall? I can’t swaddle her in a hug when something goes wrong, can’t ask her to tag along on my Target run on a whim. I won’t see that adorable bed-head when she wakes up or even know what she’s wearing. My grocery store cart won’t hold any of her favorite snacks or that disgusting green juice she insists on drinking every morning.

I should probably still get the ice cream.

It’s like watching a movie unfold as you fall in love with the characters, the story line, the flaws and challenges they all overcome. But you don’t know how it ends just yet.

Is this the end of a chapter, or of the whole novel? My brainer-than-me writer/parent friends often debate this topic as a way of postponing the inevitable letting go. Which is really all it is. But am I launching or casting out? One implies setting free, while the other leaves room to reel them back in when needed.

Letting go.

That’s what I am doing this weekend. I’m not getting a tattoo, not hanging up  my parenting cape just yet.

But I am glad I bought the ice cream.

Eighteen Candles

mom holding baby girlParenting.

One of the few jobs that doesn’t necessarily get easier the more years you have under your belt. Because while your skills might sharpen as you balance the tightrope between “yes” and “no” every day, your child is changing the playing field.

Constantly.

You might have one child or five — all boys or a mixture of kiddos — but each and every day you suit up to play a game that isn’t the same game you played yesterday.

I’ve done this parenting thing once already. With 22 years under my belt and a son recently launched into young adulthood, I thought I had it all under control.

My baby girl changed the game.

And now she’s ready to fly.

My last child, my only girl… I’m not sure what it is.

But while I am incredibly excited for her next chapter in life — college move-in only one month away — my heart is already missing that little girl who has been my sidekick for so many years. The toddler who grasped my legs while I cooked dinner and now shares my love for iced coffee and Target runs.

She’s 18 today.

I still can’t wrap my head around it.

From the day she was born, she’s been such a presence in my life. This tiny 6-pound baby girl who couldn’t wait for her due date to make her appearance; who threatened to be born while her father was off in search of a soda machine in the depths of the hospital hallways.

She altered the course of our lives, bringing a new perspective on parenting to two people who thought they knew it all. Her 4-year-old brother had no idea what a game-changer she would be… or that she would be his trusted ally and playmate for years to come. To watch them interact now as young adults is incredible. These two little souls who grew up in a heartbeat — right under my nose — as I fed them, bathed them, read to them, taught them, laughed with them and cried over them.

But my daughter.

How can I sum up 18 years of memories in just a few sentences, or a few memories pulled from the pre-digital years? Shuffling through the old photo boxes this afternoon I wished Steve Jobs had been a little bit quicker with his iPhone… or that I had not worried about the cost of a roll of prints from the neighborhood photo shop.

The cost of the missing memories is steep right now.

She is tenacious and caring, both a deep thinker and a free spirit. She makes me laugh and makes me think, makes me want to be smarter and do better. She loves a debate, yet loves a silly conversation just as much. She is fiercely loyal to her family and friends.

For the past 18 years she has graced our home with so much energy, laughter and love… and when she leaves for college next month her absence will echo down the hall, towards her empty bedroom.

But give me some Facetime, a text filled with emojis, a funny meme shared with an LOL or a call out of the blue — I’m good with that.

She’ll always be my sidekick.

Happy 18th birthday, sweet girl.

It’s time for you to fly.

kak grad walk

 

50 Shades of Play

They’re sprinkled all over the internet, in stock photos and pop-up ads.

Those moms.

The moms who actually play with their kids and smile and seem so incredibly good at mothering.

Because playing is fun, right?

When I pictured  myself as a mom, one of the things I was sure I would do all day long was play with my kids. Like really play and laugh and enjoy myself.

Um, yeah. I soon found out that there are more layers to playtime than I had ever imagined. And it changes as your child grows. While playing with your 6-week-old baby might involve nothing more than peek-a-boo and rattles, playing with a 3-year-old gets complicated. There are characters and voices and nuances that even the most attentive mom might not “get” all the time.

Let’s just say it’s not as easy as Stock Photo Mom makes it look. And while I loved, LOVED the time when my kids were young and full of wonder and energy, I also enjoyed the changes as they came… and that’s why I was so excited when I was asked by Rachel Cedar to participate in the 28 Days of Play 2015 at You Plus 2 Parenting!

youplustwoparenting
I would love it if you would head over to read my post about play, Escape From the Land of Pretend.

Then go play with your kids… before they stop asking.

The Christmas Ornament

I found it at the local Hallmark card store, just in time for Christmas.

1981: First Christmas Together

The package included stickers so you could customize your ornament with names. I added them before I wrapped it, and couldn’t wait for him to open it when we exchanged gifts.

Sherri & Scott

In hindsight, it’s an ugly ornament. Made of thin glass with a plastic coating, the Christmas scene on the front — a Victorian couple ice skating — looks cheap and cliché. But to a 16-year-old girl, it felt like something real. Like a way to say I’m crazy about you without really saying it.

So I wrapped it up and presented him the ornament, along with a few other gifts he probably preferred but have been long forgotten. What 17-year-old boy wants a Christmas ornament, anyway? The years I have spent as a mother since then have given me insights into the mind of a teenage boy I didn’t yet have back then.

Pretty sure I should have just kept the ornament for my own tree.

But somehow I was claiming my territory, trying to anchor our relationship within the envelope of his family. To have our ornament displayed on his family’s Christmas tree gave me a tiny shred of confidence that they could see me. See that I was important to him, too.

The holidays can be a particularly difficult time to work a new relationship into the mix. Moms usually have expectations and routines and traditions, certain events and family gatherings that are a “must-do” each December. Some of these begin to fall off the list as the children grow older and Christmas loses a bit of that magic it held when they were small. No more family visits to see Santa, no more driving around the neighborhood in jammies to check out all of the Christmas lights. But family bonds are tight around the holidays, and it’s tough to break in.

I think buying the ornament was a pretty bold gesture, especially from a girl who had only been dating their son for 9 months. But somehow, it passed inspection and his mother agreed (maybe reluctantly) to display our First Christmas Together ornament on the family Christmas tree.

At least when I was expected to visit.

I wouldn’t have blamed her at all for discretely moving it to the back of the tree once I was gone.

You see, there is a special dance between the mother of a son and the girl who steals his heart.  A give-and-take that many young girls take as a sign they aren’t welcome or liked or even tolerated. But it isn’t always about the girl, and that part I didn’t understand until I had a son of my own. Until our first Christmas together in 1981 unfolded into a lifetime of them spent as a couple, then a family.

And while the girl or young woman sees a potential future in the handsome young man, the mother still has her heart wrapped around the little boy who used to sit on Santa’s lap and leave crumbly cookies on a plate each Christmas Eve. The boy who willingly wore a red sweater vest for the Christmas Eve church service and belted out carols like nobody was listening. The boy who untied the bows on the advent calendar with excitement and the anticipation of ringing the bell at the bottom on Christmas Eve. The boy who played with silvery strands of tinsel and stole candy canes from low-lying branches.

The boy whose eyes brightened when the lights were first lit on the Christmas tree each year.

Now his eyes brighten at the sight of her.

And maybe she is very special to him, and the mother understands that to hold her son in her heart she needs to make room for one more.

One more person, one more ornament.

This year, I am that mom.

Our First Christmas Together ornament hangs front and center on our own family Christmas tree, 33 years later.

And I have room for one more.

Flashback on Aisle 4

mother shopping for groceries

I know it’s not him. Really, I do.

I don’t need you all worrying about my mental state, thank you.

And yet, there he is.

Halfway down the aisle, staring at the rows upon rows of crackers and snacks.

His mom obviously sent him to find something on her list, her way of letting him be a bit “big” while still accompanying her to the grocery store. He’s at that age when kids need to break free just a wee little bit — and being sent on an errand to the other side of the grocery store is only as far as a mom can bear to let him go.

He looks like he’s probably 11 years old, 12 at most. Long, lanky arms and legs that probably grew longer since he entered this store. I know how the mind of a boy that age works. It’s highly likely that while he initially remembered what brand and type of cracker his mom wanted, those details have now been replaced with the memory of a funny YouTube video or an idea for a brilliant new Minecraft build.

And so he stares at the cracker section.

As I move closer to him, his momentary trance snaps and he glances up at me, then scoots apologetically to the side to make room for my cart.

Nope. He’s not my boy.

I wanted it to be him. Just for a day, maybe just for one shopping trip.

I have shopped in this grocery store several times a week since he was 2 years old. Endless conversations about dinosaurs or books or Legos have taken place between these four walls. He charmed the cashiers from the very beginning, and his attempts to teach strangers waiting in line about which dinosaurs lived in which prehistoric periods were always met with a smile.

And when he got older, I would send him off to hunt down something on my list. It made him feel big — bigger than his little sister, who then took over the business of the endless conversation.

And this boy standing right here feels like a ghost to me. Like someone rewound the reel of a long-lost episode of my life. I remember my son so well at that age, but as he grows farther away from being 11 or 12 or even 16 I find those memories grab me at unexpected times, filling me with emotions that aren’t usually on the surface.

I wonder where the time went.

My boy shops at the grocery store hundreds of miles away from here these days. All by himself.

He’s big.

Pretty sure he isn’t chatting up the other customers or teaching the cashiers about dinosaurs these days.

I haven’t seen him in three months.

He’s coming home tomorrow.

And I just might invite him along on a grocery store run. But I won’t be sending him all over the store to collect crackers and paper towels and baby carrots.

Because I would love an endless conversation with my boy right now.

Happy Birthday, 20

I see his lips moving, but I don’t hear a word he’s saying. Instead, my attention is drawn to the stubble of a day-old beard that sprinkles his cheeks and chin.

Caught by surprise yet again at this man who still inhabits my heart as a baby.

My son just turned 20. And it’s cliche and ridiculous and so dramatic, but at these moments when I notice… really notice… that he truly is grown up now, I ache for the years that have melted away.

For the years when his chin was a place I wiped dribbles of mac and cheese from, not a place he needed to shave. For the years when I was drawn into his little face by those intense blue eyes and adorable cleft in his chin. I could stare at him for hours back then… while he slept, while he ate, while we just cuddled.

Not so cool to stare at him now.

So we coexist as adults for the most part, chatting about school or work or the latest scientific discovery. He’s full of ideas and theories, and loves to share them or debate them. His jokes make me laugh and I can still share a funny YouTube video now and then that cracks him up. Life moves forward and it’s easy to forget that he was my baby.

Is my baby, still.

There was a turning point somewhere, the tipping point where my parenting of him had reached maximum capacity, where advice and comments and mandates stopped being processed by his young adult brain.

And inside, I know that was the plan all along. To parent, to guide, to counsel and to adore. To build his confidence and his character, to help him survive heartbreak and disappointment and move forward with grace.

And even now, as I watch him talk and laugh I am awed by the simple fact that I am his mom. That I was given these 20 years with him unconditionally, even though I had no experience and there were no guarantees that I would be a good mother.

I just made it up as we went along.

No do-overs now. No second chances to go back and try a different path.

I wouldn’t really change a thing.

Because my boy, this young man who sits in front of me (and is apparently still talking) has given me the incredible gift of just being his mom.

And he will always be the baby in my heart.

baby boy

Brotherly love

In the beginning, it was all about him. First-born, first grandchild, first nephew…his place in our extended family cemented by the simple fact that he was born.

First.

He was a wise old soul in a little-boy body. Adults loved to chat with him, listening to his volumes of memorized dinosaur facts or advice about which types of plastics are recyclable. He spoke clearly and fluently, forming complete sentences before he had a complete set of teeth. He told jokes that made sense and understood sarcasm. My days were so full of questions and observations that at times I felt more like a tour guide than a mom.

Playgroups at the park were a part of our weekly routine, and I craved the time with my mom-girlfriends. I knew that the social interaction with other little ones was very important for my son, but secretly most of us form playgroups for our own adult sanity. It was in these early playgroups that I began to notice what the other little boys did. They were usually quite physical – running, jumping, pushing each other around just a bit to test their wee-manhood. My son preferred to play in the sand, creating an elaborate “recycling center” with the pails and trucks, only to be confused and upset when the other boys didn’t understand his passion. Being an old soul may make you the favorite of preschool teachers and drugstore cashiers, but it creates quite a gap on the playground.

I worked very hard to match him up with potential playmates and buddies, to teach him to be patient on the playground, and to open his eyes to the fact that not every 3-year-old was interested in fossils or the Latin names of birds. He needed another tour guide.

Along came his baby sister.

Being an only child and having a sibling thrust into your limelight isn’t easy. My son was intrigued at first, somewhat perplexed at how she really wasn’t able to do anything. He would correct me when I would say the baby was “talking” and remind me that no, she couldn’t talk yet. He never seemed jealous or spiteful, perhaps just a bit discouraged at her lack of ability to carry on a conversation or play recycling center with him. When her cries interrupted bedtime stories too often, he wondered why she had to cry at all, since she wasn’t hurt.

And then, a slight shift in the relationship. Around the time my daughter was about 18 months, it happened. I left them in the playroom for a bit while I went to load the washing machine or some other daily task. When I returned, I could hear my son talking to his sister about a game he was playing and giving her a role. Peeking quietly around the corner, I saw her huge grin and I knew she sensed it too.

She was in.

Over the years their games changed and evolved, but they would play for hours together, lost in their pretend world. My role as tour guide had been taken over by a pint-sized, energetic little girl who was eager for the challenge. Having someone who loves you no-matter-what and who will tolerate your thoughts and opinions is an incredible gift. My daughter had provided my son with a different way to view the world, something I had not been able to do on my own.

It was magic.

Both are now teenagers. My son, in his third year of college, and my daughter a sophomore in high school. Role-playing games have been replaced by wise cracks, sarcasm and text messages, or maybe a ride to soccer practice or the mall. I love listening to them talking and teasing each other, analyzing the ins and outs of high school life, pop culture and anything else that seems funny or might embarrass mom. She has finally become the equal he wanted her to be.

And he is her tour guide now.

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This piece originally ran on Moonfrye