In the cold blue morning light, my 15-year-old son sleeps. Lanky limbs sprawled across the couch, gray boxers peeking out over loose jeans, he is spent from a night of binge watching his latest movie obsession, Rocky. The glittering sun spills into the living room and illuminates his face, casting a regression spell on his features. For a brief, delicious moment, he looks like a little kid. Puckered, carnation pink lips. Feathery eyelashes. His nose, small like a sparrow. As the dryer ticks, and dishwasher hums, I watch his body gently rise and fall with each breath, much the way I did when he was a six pound newborn, and I a nervous 28-year-old mother.
Seasoned. That’s what they call what I supposedly am now. A mother who is rendered proficient and tempered through trial, tribulation, and tantrums. No longer in the trenches combating diaper blowouts, midnight feedings, and colic, I’ve transgressed into a sophisticated parent, long leaving that fumbling, breath watching, bowel movement counting mom to fade like the photograph of me in a drapey hospital gown holding a very jaundiced baby.
Or so they say.
The truth is, I’ve never felt more inept.
In some respects it’s true; having survived postpartum blues, the terrible twos, middle school humor, and now teen angst, I am more apt to give advice to my younger mom friends, using expressions such as, “It’s just a phase,” and, “Oh, I miss those days.” In grocery stores, when overstimulated toddlers scream for their leggings-clad mothers to buy Trolls fruit snacks, I nod in solidarity. I’ve been there. I’ve survived. I’ll survive this.
Or so they say.
By this, I am referring to the soul-crushing, uneeding stage my son has entered. A normal, natural process of child relying less on parent, more on himself, ultimately becoming a self-sufficient, independent adult, moving out, and thus breaking his mother’s heart.
I realize I’m being dramatic.
I’m fully aware how absurd it is. After all I’ll only be sending him off to college in three short years, not war. I often think how mothers in the past dealt with their precious sons being sent to Vietnam. What they must have felt seeing a draft card arrive in the mail. Picturing their smooth cheeked teenager trekking through a dense jungle with their rusacks, and M-16, and smoke grenades. How strong these women had to be, going about daily chores, folding laundry, cooking meatloaf, listening to Walter Cronkite. They must have been made of steel. And here I am ridiculously bemoaning my plight, choking on the lump in my throat when my son throws out terms such as, moving out, drivers license, going away to college.
Looking back at my own childhood, I don’t recall any catastrophic fanfare from my mother when I left home. Sure she was a bit emotional the month prior to my leaving, but certainly not crushed. But then again, as a daughter, I never really left. Even after I married, my then-husband and I settled in a neighboring town and spent almost every Sunday eating homemade pasta with my parents in the New Jersey cape I grew up in. I still talk to my mom almost daily, sometimes spending an hour on the phone discussing everything from parenting woes to gel manicures. I’m pretty sure I won’t be doing this with my son. He eschews long chats and doesn’t give a fig about cuticle care.
At 43 I still need my mom. I hope my son will feel the same way. My greatest fear is he won’t. Sometimes I picture him, twenty years from now, lean and tall with that same button nose, sending his wife to pick out generic Mother’s Day cards for me, making the obligatory call on my birthday, then hurrying back to his own life, leaving a gaping hole in mine. I joke with fellow boy moms that I’m totally going to be Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond. Because underneath it all, she wasn’t so much a manipulative mother-in-law—she just missed her son.
As a seasoned mother, I know the importance of autonomy and self-care. I enjoy friends, writing, and the occasional RumChata on a quiet evening while my sons are at their father’s house. I’m brutally aware of not using my children as a vehicle to my own contentment—proudly only crying for one night, in secret, when the younger one decided “Mommy” was no longer a suitable title for me, preferring the middle school approved “Mom”.
Still, I’m floundering at this letting go concept. As much as I’ve attempted to be more than just mom, I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with myself when there are no longer Doritos crumbs to sweep up, pediatrician appointments to make, and Walking Dead conventions to attend.
In the hospital, the nurses hand over this baby. Here, nurture this like your life depends on it. And we do. Now I’m asked to give that up? Who can I air my grievances to?
Sometimes I question if I had a daughter, would this stage of my life feel less emotional? Being the same sex, surely a girl would pull away less, not needing to separate herself from me so strongly in order to develop into a sexually healthy, independent being.
I pondered this question further when my parents, up for a recent visit from North Carolina, stayed in our tiny condo. With sleep space at a premium, my mom and I ended up sharing my bed.
It was lovely. Tucked beneath my Kate Spade comforter, bare-faced and smelling of rose water, my mother made me feel secure, as she did when I was five, and would sneak in her bed after having that recurring Cookie Monster nightmare. She always felt so soft as she made a space for me on the cool linen. I’d lie awake for a bit before drifting to sleep, feeling the hot summer wind on my legs, listening to the hypnotic drip of the bathroom faucet.
That nigh,t next to my mom, I remember thinking with a twinge of pain, this will never happen with my own sons. Grown men don’t sleep with their mothers, unless they want to be guests on Jerry Springer. That physical closeness—a sweet, slack little body pressing against me as I breathe in a sweaty scalp is gone. It’s been replaced by awkward, angular hugs, usually at my prompting. I resigned myself to the loss, knowing it’s a good thing my children no longer need me to fall asleep. But you might as well have stuck my heart through a paper shredder.
They are not ours to keep, I remind myself a few weeks later, when my son chooses an afternoon at the mall with a self-assured, leggy girl instead of watching Drop Dead Fred with his clingy, middle-aged mother. Inside I’m screaming, come back! He used to wake up in the middle of the night just to tell me he loved me. I nursed him for 18 months, surely I’m entitled to one lousy day watching 80’s flicks with the kid. Aren’t I?
But of course I am not. And that is both beauty and heartache. I’ve done something right. I got him to this point. How lucky I am.
So I watch my slumbering 15-year-old with the same awe and gratefulness that I watched my slumbering newborn years ago.
Because, as a seasoned mother that is all I can do.