When You’re Too Burned Out To Actually Parent Your Youngest Child

by Melissa L. Fenton
Zinkevych / Getty Images

My youngest of four boys is now 10 1/2 years old, but to me he’s going on 33 — and is fully capable of adulting the shit out of life on his own by now. At least that is what I keep telling myself: my exhausted, over it, been there done that, I’ve seen it all as a mother self. I also tell myself he doesn’t really need me emotionally, physically, or socially, and that he gets all that kind of nurturing and direction from his three older brothers.

Basically, I’ve had that kid on auto-pilot for about the last five years since he started kindergarten. With my newfound freedom once the last kid started school (finally!) I kinda sorta checked out of motherhood.

I deserved it, dammit! I had been at home with little people for well over a decade, and now I could get back to being me, not mom. The only problem is, after I checked out, I never really checked back in. He was in school now, so of course he needed me less and less, right? And I couldn’t help be over the moon about that fact. But sadly, as much as I enjoyed watching him mature at a faster rate than his brothers did (something common for the youngest to do), I also neglected to notice that just because he seemed to be totally self-reliant, didn’t mean he actually was totally self-reliant.

Still, I had happily, eagerly, and gratefully left that kid to his own defenses, and told myself it was perfectly normal that I wasn’t needed much anymore.

And thank goodness I wasn’t needed much, because what I had left in the mothering tank to give had pretty much been fumes for the last five years anyway. He’d be fine! I told myself. There was no need to hover and over parent this kid, because he’s got this!

Until one day, I realized he didn’t have this, and it was time for me to check back into motherhood. I was way overdue on my parental responsibilities, and the consequences of that slapped me across the face one day, when I looked at this misdirected kid and realized I hadn’t been there for him much. That misdirection on his part was because of the lack of direction on my part –– not because he was a bad kid, but because in my selfishness and total disinterest in his life, I had unintentionally let a ten-year-old try to parent himself. And we all know how that ends.

Having a large family lends itself to all kinds of hilarious situations, because a houseful of children naturally spirals into chaos much of the time. But behind the laughter and the daily struggle to just get through the day, often lies a mother who is completely spent, and drowning under the weight of having to parent the same stage of childhood over and over and over again. That level of exhaustion and repetitiveness can sometimes feel like torture, so we find ourselves slowly loosening our mothering grip on our youngest kids — just so we can keep our heads above water. And when those youngest kids appear to be doing well on their own, and we now know that 75% of the things we worried about with our first born never came to pass, we let go even more. Until one day we wake up to find we have a ten-year-old who we truly know very little about.

My youngest deserves (and needs) the same mother I was to my first child, and as hard as that is to give him, and as much as I want to throw in the mothering towel, I simply have got to try. I do not owe him my minimum; I owe him my maximum.

Will I be like I was when I only had one kid? Not even close, but I still think I can be that mom with years of parenting knowledge under her belt, and at the same time allow myself to feel and see my youngest as his own person, and not just another clay kid to mold and ship off into the world.

Everyone is quick to tell you how hard adjusting to being a new mom is, but they never tell you how hard it is adjusting to the later years, when you’re starving to get yourself back again, but still have a kid at home who desperately needs you. We know we have to start motherhood strong, but we forget how difficult it is to finish it strong. Regardless, I plan to try to finish strong with my youngest — as tired and jaded as I am, I have to.

I may be crawling over the parenting finish line by the time I get there, but dammit, that medal of motherhood is sure gonna look great on my neck.