It’s as if I'm free falling – the world of maternal responsibilities as I've known it flying away from me at warp speed. I'm waiting to see where I'll land. Will I be broken by my descent into a new place, or land on my feet, standing tall, ready to find out where I now fit into my child’s life, into my own life?
It's not an entirely new sensation. Each year as my daughter grew and her interests changed and developed, some activity would fall by the wayside, and I would be forced to sever ties to a place and to people to whom I had become attached.
When she was three and four and five, she happily clapped her hands and stamped her feet, singing silly songs and banging on drums as we sat together on the floor in a circle, following the direction of a spritely and talented woman named Delores. But the “mommy and me” music group had a shelf life. When it came to its natural end, we left it behind.
Other activities could have gone on for much longer, but they turned out to fulfill my desires, and not my daughter’s. How stunning she looked in her pink leotard and tights and tutu, blond curls corralled into a tidy bun, leaping and twirling across the wooden floor. But how long could I pretend not to hear her say that she didn’t like her dance class? That she did not want to continue with ballet, but preferred to try tennis lessons? I could turn a deaf ear in the name of “giving it a chance” for a little while, but soon the costumes and the recitals would live only in the photographs I had taken.
And now? Now she's 18, and far more significant transitions await. I'm not in the position of leaving one or two segments of her life behind, but rather the whole package is radically different. It's a challenge that I'm grateful to face – certainly, I've prayed for the day when my child will leave home, stand on her own two feet, embrace all that being an adult has to offer. But still . . .
At 18, she's nervous and excited, on the brink of a new independence that both frightens and energizes. And where am I at 50? In largely the same place, but without the obvious new endeavors to latch on to now that this phase of motherhood is ending.
Is this juncture made more difficult because she is going abroad for a gap year? She's leaving to study in Israel, a land she has learned to love through her heritage and her religious education, but an unsettled and sometimes volatile part of the world. On a daily basis, living there among her People, she will feel safe and secure and strong. Those of us left behind will be unable to resist following news accounts of danger lurking and sometimes erupting.
In the final analysis, I don’t really think it has much to do with where she is going, but really just the fact of her going. Her needs have been the center of my existence since her birth. It isn’t as though all other pursuits disappeared – I worked as an attorney for many years, helped to take care of my own mother as she aged, devoted myself to a marriage that continues to be a blessing. But the children have a way of coming first, or at least they always have for me. So I am left with the question of what replaces that priority when caring for her no longer demands to be placed at the top of the “to do” list each and every day.
I thank God, as I always have, that we have a younger son, with three years left of high school. Although we're approaching the empty nest and all that entails, we're not there yet. He perceives some distinct advantages in being the only child home, but he too is worried – anxious that the maternal beam of attention will be focused so brightly on him alone now.
I've tried to assure him that it will not be onerous, but I can't truthfully tell him that things will not be different. Although I surely believe that a mother has enough love for every child, time and attention is another matter. With one child off on her own, I will be more available for chauffeuring, cooking his favorite foods, watching his sports games. But I'll also have more time for pushing him in his studies, asking him where is going and with whom, and telling him to clean up his room.
At the airport waiting for the group flight for her program, my daughter’s anxiety was miraculously subsumed in an excitement that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and I am grateful. Her smile, her enthusiasm when meeting the other young women, her proficiency in handling her luggage and answering the questions posed to her by El Al security officers – in Hebrew no less! – all lifted me up.
If I could have cheered for her aloud in the terminal I would've, just as when she took her first steps as toddler. She wiped away a stray tear as she left her father and me behind the barriers. She, the passenger with the ticket to the next phase of her life. As she got halfway down the hall, she turned with a huge smile, and waved.
My role as a mother has constantly evolved – primary caretaker, both physical and emotional, has always been only one part of the picture. And I know that this juncture of going off to school is just one more stage – one that may pale in comparison to when my children marry, have children of their own, perhaps move far away. Yet there is worth in taking the time to reevaluate at each turning point, and foolish to believe things can stay the same.
Right now, the expanse of possible new ways to look at myself and my future, both internally and externally, feels daunting. But I pray that in the days to come, I will approach the journey at 50 with the same hope and confidence as my daughter at 18. Who knows what adventures await me and my husband when the little birds have flown?