“I didn’t get it! I can’t believe it!” I said to the parent seated next to me. We were at an outdoor concert venue for my younger son’s high school graduation. And I had just missed the money shot, the one where his six-foot tall, lanky self bends down to accept his diploma from the principal. The one where my son’s too-wide smile, dots of acne and pink-patterned Nikes still memorialized him as a teen, not yet fully morphed into an adult.
“I knew this would happen!” I lamented to Pete, who kindly entertained my freak out. “I suck at technology and if only my husband hadn’t let the batteries run out…” Thankfully, the emcee cut short my tirade by announcing Pete’s son’s name. “OMG, Pete, did I make you miss the photo?” I asked, mortified that my selfishness and pettiness might have afflicted him too.
“No, Stephanie, I got it. Don’t worry!” he replied.
But worry I did. I was letting my emotions get in the way of enjoying my son’s ceremony. I had vowed to make this day about him, not me. I had somehow managed to keep myself in check when my older son graduated high school two years earlier. But this time, I couldn’t. I wished that I could be like my husband and just focus on the moment without delving deeper into what it meant. To me. But I couldn’t.
Usually when I was in danger of an emotional meltdown, I searched for distraction. But here, there were none. All the parents were focused on their children. No one was interested in making small talk. Bright red gowns hid the graduates’ clothes so I couldn’t focus on their teenage outfits, something I often did at football games to distract me after a player had gotten hurt and I feared the worst. It wasn’t hot enough for me to be bothered by my own hot flashes. Even the constant din of the cicadas couldn’t drown out my thoughts.
If the impassioned, if not somewhat clichéd, graduation speaker was to be believed, “the best was yet to come.” Maybe for my son and his friends, I thought, wallowing in it. “The best” to me foretold a future where I was more of a spectator in my son’s life instead of a daily participant. One where I would no longer call him on the way home from work to see what protein-laden feast he wanted me to cook for dinner that night. One where he would no longer tease me about my chocolate chip habit as we sat on the couch waiting for his dad to come home. One where I would no longer be able to give him a reassuring hug after an emotionally charged conversation.
I looked around the crowded rows of parents who all seemed more engaged in the ceremony than me. Maybe they were all good actors, I thought, as I wondered why I was acting more like a teenager mired in her own thoughts. I wasn’t a clingy mom who smothered my kids with my own needs because that’s what my mom did to me. My husband and I gave them love, but we set boundaries. We gave them independence. We wanted them to explore and enjoy life, find partners, friends and a career. Knowing that an empty nest was on our horizon, I had already started working to resurrect my old freelance writing career in anticipation of all of the free hours I would have on my plate.
And then it struck me. For the last 20 years, I have defined myself as a mom. A working mom. A soccer mom. A boys’ mom. A teens’ mom. A first-generation mom. Regardless of what other interests I pursued, I was always, first and foremost, a mom. And my boys have colored every life choice I’ve made since I can remember.
My husband was (and is) a great father, but I was the one who held down the fort. The one who scheduled the parent-teacher conferences. The one who sped down the freeway to pick them up from daycare on time. The one who rushed out of work meetings to drive in one of the many car pools I had set up for soccer or basketball practices. The one who ran to the grocery store after work to buy treats for yet another school function, and later, corsages for prom. The one who passed up certain opportunities at work because they would take me away from tending to my boys’ needs. Like many moms, I did all of this willingly. I wanted to give them stability, love and support in much greater amounts than I had growing up.
Now it was time to let my youngest son go and for our home to be quiet when I returned from work in the evening. For my focus to shift more to my husband and me than to our boys. For new hobbies, new habits or new beginnings, as all the articles I read on the subject so positively suggested.
As we walked among the jumbled throngs of parents, siblings and newly maskless relatives to meet our graduates for more photos after the ceremony, I knew that I wasn’t quite ready for this rite of passage, but my son was. He needed it. Especially after this crazy year in which he had never even set foot inside of a high school classroom.
So as any good mother would, I reminded myself to focus on his needs. Not mine. “Have a great time at the party, sweetie!” I said after we snapped a few photos and kissed him goodbye. He handed me his cap, gown and diploma in a messy stack.
As my husband and I made our way to the car, I looked back at parents taking those last photos, their images darkened by the oncoming dusk and voices drowned out by the loud chants of the cicadas. I smiled thinking of how appropriate it was that those strange insects, who last emerged when my younger son took his first steps, had returned to see him off as he ventured into this next phase of life.
And when we got into the car, I finally allowed myself to cry.