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.

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.

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

The Hardest Gift

I’ve seen her each morning this past week of summer. Little wisp of a girl on her brand-new big girl bicycle, shiny pink helmet guarding her head and a smile that won’t stop.

Freedom. She tastes it — possibly for the very first time. She rides up and down our street each morning, past my kitchen window, too many times to count. Pink and white tassels fly from her handlebars and flap in the wind, making her ride seem just a wee bit faster.

As parents, we want this freedom for our kids. No, really — we DO. We dole it out to them in tiny measures at first. I still remember the first time I walked down the hall, away from my young toddler’s room while he was busy and engaged with his books and toys. I was giving him a little gift — some time alone without my constant chatter or my overwhelming need to note the color of something or the sound of the train whistle in the distance. A bit of space that says I trust you, have fun, make good choices.

I’ll be right here.

What little pushes and cautious bits of freedom we give our little ones — at times, reluctantly — multiply and grow into a cloak they wear as teens. Freedom becomes expected, something they have earned bit by bit that we must never question or try to take back.

And so goes the delicate balance we live when the teens are home — especially those who have lived on their own for a bit. Their freedom is everything to them, and offers of assistance or advice are often pushed aside.

I’m fine.

Yes, mom.

I’ve got this.

I don’t need your help, but thanks.

Freedom.

When the little girl went by this morning, I asked my almost-15-year-old daughter if she remembered learning to ride her bicycle on this very same street. If she remembered the mom-imposed boundaries she was allowed to ride within without supervision. My version of without supervision at the time involved casually walking out to the sidewalk and cautiously squinting down the block to make sure she was still alive, that she hadn’t fallen prey to the dozen or so scenarios I had crafted in my mommy brain and wrapped in a blanket of worry.

She did remember, and we both smiled at the memory of a feisty little 3-year-old whose boundaries were the tree five houses down and the crack in the sidewalk just almost around the corner. The boundaries and edges of our comfort zone stretch and reshape themselves, until we are left with a young adult whose choices and decisions we no longer have much control over.

Exactly what we are intended to do.

But it’s hard. Harder than you can imagine, that first time you give that little pink bicycle a gentle push and she goes sailing away, ponytail flying and wearing a smile bigger than her face.

You will smile too… and in time, these pushes will all pay off.

I watched the little girl ride by again.

And I smiled, and silently cheered for her… and for her mother down the street.

Because she’s earning her freedom…

but her mom had to give it away.

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This piece was originally published on Moonfrye

 

 

Family Tree

The tree might have been the real reason we bought this house.

A massive Chinese Elm spreading long, graceful branches over the grass and the gravel area beneath it.

To anyone else, the yard might have seemed plain or ordinary. There were no stone retaining walls or peaceful waterfalls; no fancy covered deck with seating areas or fire-pits; and even the plants were non-descript.

But to the mother of a two year-old boy, this yard was a magical place just waiting to be discovered. Somewhere to run or to drive a Cozy Coupe; to be a superhero, pirate, or knight; to splash in kiddie pools and eat popsicles in the heat of the summer.

The tree held this magical place in a massive hug of shade during the hottest parts of a summer’s day.

Sold.

When you take a little boy who has lived in a small condominium with no yard and unleash him onto a quarter-acre lot his world suddenly becomes quite a bit bigger.

Over the course of the next fifteen years, the tree shaded several kiddie pools, playhouses, and teeter-totters; a sandbox and a fort; countless backyard birthday parties and endless rounds of summer popsicles; two crazy puppies and a little girl reading her treasured books. It has supported pinatas and a rope swing; bird nests and squirrels running amongst the branches.

Two little kids have grown before my eyes in the shade of that tree.

Yesterday my son was outside doing some yard work when he first noticed it.

A huge vertical crack down the trunk of our tree, almost breaking the trunk in half. It was so deep, I could have put my whole hand inside.

This huge branch, such a critical part of our tree, had been trying to split away for some time now without us noticing.

And now, suddenly? This branch was ready to go, the massive tree no longer able to hold on.

Like my son, who had already been busy that morning.

Hey, I thought I might start packing up some things in my room. You know, get a head start for September when I leave for college…

And I was powerless to stop it.

If I didn’t act quickly and the trunk let go too soon, the branch would hit the house and cause a lot of damage.

My eyes were teary. I felt sick inside and certain that we couldn’t save the tree; that this part of our home I had loved so much would be cut down and turned to mulch. Nothing but a memory from here on forward.

Nothing but the memories.

I made a pile of things to get rid of before I leave; you know, stuff I’ve outgrown or don’t want anymore…you can look through it if you want.

The arborist came and carefully examined the split, making notes and giving advice.

It would take all afternoon and a crew of seven men, but he felt that they could save the tree.

Finally I could catch my breath. I hadn’t realized just how much this particular element of our home meant to me.

Where the huge branch once grew now there is a raw scar, glaring at me out the kitchen window. A reminder of what once was, which will heal over in time.

And without it, the tree will still thrive.

I’m taking this duffel bag with me, so I can pack enough clothes for my visits home…

And go on to the next round of adventures beneath it’s shade.

Of Trust and Letting Go

There is a delicate balance to this game of parenting, no matter what stage of the game you’re currently at.

An ebb and flow.

Of trust, and letting go.

It begins the first time you hand your newborn child over to someone and let them hold this little gift you’ve bestowed on mankind. This small piece of your heart.

I trust you, and I’m letting go.

And while the letting go isn’t always easy, it’s essential to the well-being of your child.

And you.

So you do it, maybe even just in small steps at first.

Maybe she’s a wonderful new friend from playgroup; a confidante with whom you share tales of sleepless nights and starting solid foods. You love scheduling play dates for your babies, even when you secretly know it’s really for the moms.

Then one time when you make plans to get together, she offers to watch your baby while you get some things done.

Just for a bit.

Or maybe it comes in a big way, when you head back to work and leave your baby with someone you’ve chosen based on trust and that feeling deep in your gut. Someone who will hold and rock this piece of your heart, soothe tears in your absence, and care for your little one as you would.

I trust you, so I think I can let go.

Preschool comes, faster than you’d thought it really would. Those little smiling faces sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the brightly-colored rug tug at your heart just a bit. But your little one is learning and growing, taking big steps towards independence.

The teacher smiles and motions for you to leave, and you do. But not without turning back at the car, wondering for a second if it’s really good to leave.

But I trust you, so I’m letting go.

When your child starts grade school a host of new issues threaten the balance. Field trips on buses or in another parent’s car; recess squabbles with classmates; hours spent away from home. They seem to be spending more time with other people than ever before, being influenced by their peers whether you like it or not.

Because you really can’t always be there.

And each year as they get a bit older and a bit more independent your trust begins to shift. Now it’s not only trusting the other adults who interact with your child, but also a trust of your child himself.

Trust that the little person you’ve been raising is getting a good sense of right and wrong, has the ability to make good decisions, and has tucked away some good common sense.

I trust you, which helps me let go.

The teenage years push trust to the forefront, and the give and take is on a daily basis. Can I borrow the car, stay out past midnight, go visit a friend, hang out at the mall?

Trust, always on a teeter-totter finding balance with letting go.

When you watch your teenager leave the house in a car driven by his teenage friend, you have to summon the trust from deep within. Because to trust another child to drive your child just takes the game to a whole new level.

I’m trying to trust you, so I can let this feeling go.

College beckons, pulling my son away not slowly but in an instant one day this coming fall. And while the journey of these past 17 years has gone way faster than the younger me had ever imagined, we have built a foundation of trust that will carry him while he’s out of reach.

When he needs to make decisions on his own, right his wrongs, and use that common sense he’s been stashing away.

I’ve learned that I can trust you, and now I can let go.

Exit Interview

I sit waiting in the small room, my portfolio lying on the desk in front of me. It seems decent enough, filled with pictures and art work, certificates and ribbons. I wonder if there was anything else I should have included that would make a difference. I guess it’s too late now.

Maybe some sort of bribe would help.

I wonder if there’s an ATM nearby.

I feel awkward in my fancy skirt, blouse, and pumps; they look like a Catholic school uniform all grown up. I should have worn the same clothes I’ve worn on the job site all these years. There was never a complaint, unless you count that unfortunate clogs-with-skinny jeans incident.

At least nobody took pictures.

The door swings open and the interviewer glides into the room, taking the seat across from me. She wears beautiful clothes, flashy jewelry, and not a hair is out of place. Her nails are impeccably manicured without a chip in sight. Her shoes match, she looks rested, and she has no spit/mud/coffee/rice cereal/zit cream stains on her clothes.

Why did I have to get the one interviewer who can’t possibly relate to my job?

“Good morning, my name is Miss Dopportunity, and I will be interviewing you today.” She looks down at the stack of papers she has taken out of my file. “So, I see here that you are nearing the end of your current position as Mother to a High Schooler. My paperwork states that you were on the fast-track, climbing rather quickly through the ranks of Mother of an Infant to Preschool Mother and PTA Mom.”

“Well…,” I stammer, “if you can correct that in the paperwork please, I never requested to be on the fast-track. I really wanted to master each position before being promoted to the next.”

She chuckles quietly, glancing up at me for a moment before regaining her perfect composure. “There really is no “other” track for this career. True, some of those early days may have actually seemed longer than 24 hours, but in reality the whole career path moves at lightning speed.” She rifles through the papers a bit more and makes a few notes on them, then fixes her gaze on my portfolio. “Let’s have a look at what you’ve brought here today.”

I quickly open the large folder, anxious to show her the fruits of my labor (and delivery). There are baby footprints inked at the hospital, a lock of newborn hair too fragile to handle. Lost teeth, certificates for library summer programs, report cards, and class pictures. Paintings, crayon drawings, necklaces made of dried pasta. Letters from grandparents loved and lost, newspaper clippings, baseball team pictures, autographs of famous people, and movie ticket stubs.

Random reminders of a childhood that slipped through my fingers.

Junk, really. To any other human being who isn’t a mother.

I wonder what she’ll think of the job I did as she sifts through the things with efficiency and tact. I want her to be careful with them, but I hesitate to say anything for fear of sounding rude. Then again, with those fancy fingernails, she might damage something.

Or break a nail.

She stops thumbing through my things and pulls out her notes.

“Now then, I have a few questions to ask you. These are standard questions at this point in your career, but your answers might determine your exit strategy so please think carefully before you answer.”

A tiny sound somewhere between a gasp and a squeak leaves my lips. I hope she didn’t hear it.

“Did you let him play in the rain? Catch tadpoles at the creek? Did he see museums and movies, plays and magic shows? Was he allowed to get dirty, taste the snow, wade into the freezing cold surf, bury his sister in the sand?”

“Was he taught to be kind, to think of others? Does he have a pet? Did you make his home a soft place for him to land when he falls? To read? To relax? Chase a dream, develop a passion?”

“Were there scraped knees, bloody noses, toothless grins in Christmas card pictures? Did you tell him about the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, only to have to come clean later? Did you help him dig to China in the sandbox? Make a dinosaur skeleton out of chicken bones? Fingerpaint in the house?”

“Did you ever just sit and watch a herd of cows graze, hang out in the backyard hoping to see a shooting star, look for owls, go fishing at dusk or hike an incredible hike? Was he ever allowed to spend the day in his jammies, eat ice cream for dinner or just sleep until noon?”

“Did you enforce the rules, dole out punishments, make him apologize, send him to his room? Did he have to make amends, write thank-you notes, remember to say “please” and be nice to teachers?”

“Can he tie his own shoes, pack a suitcase, use a payphone, schedule an appointment, brush his teeth, make his bed, keep track of his own money, build a campfire, open a small carton of milk, mow the lawn, pump himself on the swing, ride a bike?”

She pauses here, giving me a chance to take it all in. I am so nervous, feeling that there must have been something that I overlooked, one or two major steps along the way that I neglected to take. I nod my head, maybe a bit too tentatively, and wait for her to pepper me with more questions.

“Well then, it seems that everything is in order. You still have some time remaining in your current position, but I am recommending that you be considered a candidate for the next level, Mother to a Young Adult. I will forward the paperwork sometime in the next few months.”

I am stunned. Shouldn’t there be more questions to ask?

Maybe a lie-detector test?

“That’s it, that’s all you need from me? Are you sure? How can you really know that I’ve done my job well enough to move on? How will I really ever know? Is there a salary increase with this new level? What about vacation pay? Does this skirt make my butt look big? How do we really know that Humpty Dumpty was an egg?”

She stands up and smoothes out her skirt, pushing her chair back in as she heads for the door. As she reaches the door she stops, turns, and looks me in the eye. “This career is what you make of it. There are no right and no wrong answers. What you do with it is your choice. Once you are promoted to the next level, there is no going back. The hours can be pretty crappy, the pay is lousy, and your insubordinates can be, well, insubordinate. But don’t get me wrong; this is a lifetime career. The positions may change along the way, but you will always be employed.”

She walks out the door, shutting it quietly behind her. I slowly gather my treasures and put them back into the file folders, ready to return them to the drawer at home. No ribbons or certificates for me here today, not even a candy bar or a pat on the back. But I do a little happy-dance, just because I can. The rewards of motherhood are immeasurable, and can’t be compensated with cash, prizes or chocolate. I will never know for sure if I did a good job, but I do know that I did my best.

And I’m pretty sure I’ve earned that promotion.