Despite my husband’s daily reminder that he and I are in charge of our two young rapscallions, and not the other way around, I am nevertheless delighted when my parental influence is actually followed. Our morning routine, for example, goes something like this:
Me, from the top of the stairs, in a towel, yelling down to our youngest: “Buddy, are you being a good boy?”
Our youngest, from a kitchen stool in front of the open refrigerator: “Nothing!”
And so it goes. My daily parental influence might feel like I’m talking with the vacuum cleaner on, but what I think about more often is the ever-growing distance between me and my two young children. With every developmental milestone they accomplish, their need for me diminishes. One more stone drops into place and their foundations continue to solidify.
Sure, I still provide each of them with food, shelter, and kisses when they cry, but I know that slowly their bike rides will go farther and wider than the familiar loop around our block. I already see it when my 5-year-old rides his bike so far ahead that I can’t see him when he turns the corner. I get nervous and a little bit panicky, but 32 seconds later I too have turned the corner and can see him again, taking on the sidewalk like a boss. My heart buckles in these moments.
Sometimes I ask my 3-year-old if I can keep him in my pocket for the day so that we don’t have to separate. I mean it. What if?! And I frequently give my husband the heads up that I will have on an ugly crying face for every school milestone for the next 16 years. All of this is wrapped up in an irrational fear that someday I will be rejected by my own dearest hearts.
Yes, this is actually about me. It may be a little presumptuous to worry now, when they’re still so young, but on the other hand, how dare either of them not want to spend every minute with me for the rest of their lives, like I do, them?
I’ve been thinking about this more acutely than usual because I am on the other side of the equation as well. I too am a child of a mom. But stay with me. I too relied on my mom for food, shelter, and kisses, and I too rode my bike farther away as I got older. Eventually, I no longer needed my mom to shop with me because I trusted my own opinion. I no longer needed to cry on her shoulder about a guy, because I found my husband. And I no longer needed to ask her for money, because I got a job. I thought little of these shifts in our cosmic balance because if nothing else I was independent! Growing up! Rocking out with all my Adulting! But now that I hold the position of mom, I see what she saw and I feel what she felt. It’s a deep, dark secret that we never say out loud, because it’s too painful: being a parent is about being supplanted by something else.
Certainly the positive way to spin this is that we parents are rearing independent individuals who will foster the values and morals we instill in them to be strong leaders and thinkers for their children, and so on. My pessimistic (or, I’d like to think realistic) tendency is instead to see this all as a cruel wrenching of my heart from which I will spend the rest of my days recovering.
In the case of my mom and me, perhaps her displacement started incrementally, but our relationship was truly tested when I met my husband, who quickly became my new go-to for trials and successes, both big and small. This was immensely hurtful to my mom, but I was too busy starting a life with my partner.
Yet! Yet, I recently experienced a moment with my mom that made me realize that my irrational fears of rejection are indeed unfounded. Our moment occurred on a random Saturday when we met for coffee to exchange valentines to and from the kids. I had my 3-year-old in tow and was frazzled from exhaustion. Our small talk led to big talk, and though I thought I had processed some recent disappointments, there was something in the way she asked about my life that made me instantly well with tears.
I was embarrassed for being so rattled, but my mom didn’t flinch. She knew just what bolstering, supportive things to say to make me sit up straighter and feel a little lighter. Her words were the perfect balm for my emotional wound and by the time we parted ways, I felt relief and gratitude for the stretched but unbroken tether between this woman and me. I thought about the thousands of times she comforted me as a little girl, drove me to school behind the bus I had just missed as a teen, and visited me in far-flung cities as a young woman. My, did she work hard all those years.
I wish I knew eight years ago what I know now: that parents aren’t just parents, they’re people with their own feelings and needs, who unfailingly orbit on the same axis while their children spin in and out and farther away by the day. That the force of gravity, or tether, between the two, cannot be severed. I’m comforted by this notion, because it means that my children, no matter how far away they are, will always be tied to me. As long as I know that, I will let them go. I, in turn, will be sure to spin right here so that they know where to find me in those moments of need.