I knew the day was coming. Almost every mother of a son I know eventually becomes dwarfed by her baby boy, switches to standing in front of him instead of holding him for pictures. I saw that my husband was taller than his mom, that my own dad was taller than my grandma. I knew deep in my heart that it was going to happen, but I still was not prepared for the day my son became taller than me.
I’ve always been tall, nearly six feet, and forever banished to the back row of every group picture. Pants and legroom have always been hard to find, but few shelves have been too hard to reach. I’m tall, my husband is tall, and even though our kids have always been the tallest toddlers on the playground, I was sure I had more time until I had to start looking up at the boy who has forever looked up to me.
I was hugging him before bed, telling him goodnight, but it felt awkward, twisted, mangled. Instead of pulling my boy into me and squeezing him, I felt joints, knobs, limbs. I realized that, to my great shock, he was, ever so slightly, squatting.
We faced each other, and with pride and horror, I realized I wasn’t looking into his eyes anymore—I was staring at his nose. My boy, my firstborn, my tiny preemie whose head I sniffed incessantly in the NICU was now standing tall enough to sniff my head.
He saw my eyes well with tears and went in for another hug, just as we’d hugged for 13 years—his arms around my waist and mine around his shoulders.
The universal symbol of mothering, of nurturing, of care and protection. The stance that told him he could fall into me and always find peace, the embrace that enveloped him and told him he was loved. We tried to hug this way, but as before, the elbows and shoulders and squatting made it look more like a geometry problem than a symbol of care.
“Baby, you’re going to need to go up on the hugs from now on. You go up, I’ll go down.”
So we hugged again, a little differently. He wasn’t as unsteady as with his first steps—this time it was me who was unsure. He wasn’t burying his face into my stomach to soften his tears, he was wrapping his arms around my shoulders to soften mine. Instead of resting my cheek against his hair and breathing in whiffs of his sweet shampoo, I now laid my head against his chest and caught the notes of his cologne.
My son was now holding me as firmly as I’ve always held him.
He’s still very much a boy, but the man he’s becoming seems to be peering through the cracks sooner than I’d thought he would. I’d worried about the day he became taller than me, afraid that once he had to look down at me he wouldn’t respect my authority or take me seriously. I was afraid if I had to start going down on the hugs, I’d become less important, that if I couldn’t wrap him up in my arms, he wouldn’t come to me . . . or maybe even need me.
But since he’s grown to be taller than me, I’ve realized my position as his mother hasn’t changed with my position in our hugs.
He still says goofy things and falls up the stairs, still laughs at potty humor, and needs to be reminded to take the trash out. He’s not a man yet, and he hasn’t lost his need for me yet. I still have work to do in mothering him, just from a different position.
He no longer needs me to feed him, to bathe him, or to help him sound out words. But he does still need me to teach him to cook, to help him pick out body wash that he likes, and to talk over the day’s problems with. He doesn’t need me to rock him to sleep, but he does need me to shake him awake. I no longer have to find a babysitter so I can go to the movies, now I can go with him. We don’t need a booster seat when we go out, but soon I’ll be in his passenger seat.
My arms go down now when we hug, now that my son is taller than me. I still get to hug him, still get to comfort him, only now I get to feel the product of my hard work when he wraps his arms around me. The position has changed, but the need has not. The mechanics of mothering a teenager are different from those of parenting a toddler, but they’re still there.
Our hugs have changed and along with them, our relationship.
The shift from lying my cheek on his hair, to pressing it against his heart has been a powerful symbol in the shift from parenting a boy to parenting a young man. I can’t do it all for him anymore, but he’s not altogether independent from me, either. There’s a difference, but not an absence.
My son is now taller than me when we hug, but he still wants to hug me. And while I’ll never again lean my head down to cover and envelop him, from here on I get to press my ear to his chest and hear the beating of a heart I helped mold. My boy may be bigger than me now, but it’s never been more clear that he’ll never be too big for me, or my hugs.