For more than ten years, our boys were “the babies” of the family. But that ended a while ago: our extended family includes nine children, ages three months to seven years, and they’re truly a gift to all of us.
Last week, one of my nieces emailed everyone a video clip of her nine-month-old baby and somewhere between listening to Ryan’s laughter and noticing the look on Heather’s face; something became crystal clear to me. The video showed him pushing a ‘learn-to-walk’ toy in front of him as he practiced his very first independent steps. It also showed his mother watching him closely, in case he stumbled. As he struck out on his own, the look on his face and his cheerful cooing noises told me he had figured out that this walking thing was kind of fun. And that it promised to bring him a lifetime of adventure.
I watched the video in a kind of bittersweet fog. It’s been many years since I positioned one of my boys behind the little “learn to walk” truck each of them used for balance as he learned to stand on his own and then take a step. Many years since I watched and worried about unsteady toddlers trying out their new found freedom. And although I remember watching each of them get ready and then take off, so proud, so excited, now so long ago, I don’t remember noticing the direction every one of them took.
It wasn’t realizing how many years had passed since my boys were toddlers that made my niece’s video so poignant. No, watching Ryan cross the room reminded me of something I’d heard or read somewhere not too long ago: the first steps our children take are away from us. That simple and profound truth startled me.
Think about the strolls you took with your own children as they learned to walk. You leaned over to hold their hands, probably above their heads, and walked behind them and they stepped out in front of you. Think about babies like my niece’s son, who grab hold of a toy to steady themselves as they push it along. In the very first stages of walking, children travel toward independence, into a place they want to claim as their own, not back toward mommy or daddy.
The video was an affecting reminder that children choose to walk away; even as very young children they make that choice. It also reminded me of another profound truth, and maybe the only bit of comfort I could take away from this: they can’t come back unless they walk away.
It’s only after children have practiced those first steps, after they’ve learned to toddle with some confidence, that parents position themselves in the “come to Mommy” or “come to Daddy” pose, asking their little boy or girl to return. We wait with open arms, and although we may celebrate this milestone on some level, we don’t quite relax until they’re safe and secure with us.
Which brings me to Thanksgiving. This year, my two youngest boys are high school seniors, and my oldest will be “coming home” from college for the holiday. This year, those two seniors are now only months away from taking thousands of steps away from me. My oldest will be on a break from his new life and walk back toward my (figuratively and literally) open arms.
I conjure up my own video, that begins with a toddler ambling across a room and then fades into a boy racing down the street or across a field, and before you know it, he’s on a bike or a skateboard or a scooter or rollerblades and he continues along, right out the door. Then, just when you think he can’t go much further, he walks out the door one night, swinging the car keys, to spend the evening with friends.
I’ve quietly watched all of this unfold – maybe hundreds of times by now. I remind myself: moving away seems like every child’s destiny; coming back feels like a choice. And unless I watch them leave, I won’t be able to welcome them home.