Saturday, May 07, 2011

The road not taken might be the way home.

When I’m around new moms, I play a role I never imagined: the elder statesman (stateswoman?) among working mothers. Women in the forty-plus demographic embody the first generation of “modern” women who earned degrees and entered the workplace in large numbers. Somewhere along the line, many of us married, had children, and kept our day jobs. I guess that makes us the prototype for the next generation.

I find myself facing younger mothers, full of questions and incredulity, mostly of the “how did you ever do all this?” or “how did you make this look so easy?” variety. As they look to me for words of wisdom - big mistake - I look back at them and their young children and think, ‘So soon! This stage will be over and you’ll wonder how it all flashed by so quickly.’

Yes, caring for babies and chasing toddlers is exhausting. You learn how to interpret almost every move your child makes and figure out how to meet his or her every need. It’s rewarding and exciting because as they grow, you watch them - day by day, inch by inch - become the person they were born to be.

But the older my children get, the more they teach me about being a mother. They’re teaching me to listen; that it doesn’t really matter how tired I am on any given night, or what I may have on my “to do” list. The “on call” aspect of motherhood that begins with overnight feedings doesn’t ever really go away. Example: when one of them wanders into the TV room at eleven p.m. and sinks into a chair across the room, it’s time to perk up and be ready to listen. At that moment, he’s reaching out, even in the most unobtrusive way, to say, “please listen to me” and sometimes the words aren’t the most important part of the exchange.

They’re teaching me to relax. When they were growing up, the best part of our lives mostly happened around the dinner table, four or five nights a week, when we talked and laughed to see where that would lead us. The dinner table has fewer people around it these days but when it’s full, we usually sit around for hours and unwind together. We solve nothing; we debate everything; we challenge each other; we tell incredible stories. Their beliefs and their point of view on everything from Princess Eugenie’s hat (a total non-issue for them) to a madman in a mansion in Pakistan (a very big deal) captivate me.

Years from now, I hope I’ll remember what amazing memories they had for details about absolutely everything. I know I’ll remember their unquenchable thirst for random yet interesting facts. I’ll hear the music they made in the house every night. Every day, even now as they are beyond high school and making their way into adulthood, they teach me that they’re so much more than the “numbers” we use to measure our children, so much more than projects and grades and tests.

As young adults, they’re pulling me – reluctantly – into the next stage of being a mother. The one where you observe, and offer a thought or two that may just have some basis in reality but nonetheless feels intrusive and smothering to the recipient. The one that teaches you to have patience, and trust that they'll reach out if they need any of the following: help, a shoulder to cry on, a trusted confidant, a place to vent, an objective observer, or money. The one where you want to scream – and sometimes do: “Please, please trust me! You’re making an enormous mistake!” But you try to convince yourself that some mistakes may have to happen once, just so they never happen again.

They’re teaching me, incrementally and relentlessly, how to let go. I remember one night years ago, when one of the boys was upset about an audition at school. He wouldn’t share many details, except to tell me that he “blew it . . . I was terrible.” I tried to reassure him that he almost certainly did better than he imagined but he refused to discuss it.

Turns out, he did want to talk about it - just not to me. He spent at least an hour on the phone with a friend - a girl - and she was able to give him the comfort I couldn’t. This was becoming more and more the norm.

I felt lost. I felt disposable and replaced and irrelevant. I also felt - reluctantly - enlightened and proud to watch him as he “grew up.” It was natural that he would want turn outward - to a girlfriend - for the reassurance he needed. It was right that he should begin to loosen the ties I worked so hard to weave. But still, it felt strange.

Before he went to sleep, I shared some of these feelings with him. I told him I understood he needed some independence and privacy. When I hugged him goodnight, I said something like, “I get it - but I miss you.”

He seemed to “get it” too, and reassured me quietly, “I’ll come back.”

Here’s the thing: I’m trying to balance the “spread your wings and fly” schmaltz with the “why don’t you ever call [or text or Facebook or IM] your mother??” guilt trips. Haven’t quite worked that out yet. The reality is this: I want to admire their independence. I want to watch them grow and find their way and build a life. But I also want them to remember that sometimes, the road not taken during times of trouble might be the one that leads home.

I don’t NEED any of my boys to come back home in order to feel fulfilled or “successful” as a mom. I just want them to know they can. And I’ll be here.

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