“Mom, what do you do all day?” my seventeen-year-old son Dylan asked me one day last spring as he passed through the kitchen, tossing his cereal bowl — crusted with day-old Frosted Flakes — into the sink.
“Why do you ask?” I inquired, impressed that his cereal bowl had actually made it to the sink instead of festering in his room, congealing into a green fuzzy mass under his bed.
“Well,” he continued, “like I know you stayed home to raise us and all, but since I’m going to college next year and Brennan will be sixteen and able to drive himself everywhere, you’re kind of done being a parent.”
Kind of done? These words shocked me like a bucket of cold water on my head, making me gasp for breath. Kind of done? Oh no, no, no, I’m nowhere near done with you kids, I thought to myself, a mixture of anger, fear and doubt bubbling up through my body.
When my kids were small, I promised myself that I would be the perfect mom. The Carol Brady of the new millennium. I would read to them every night and make them green smoothies every morning. I would create charts for chores and expect them to get done without complaint. I would teach them how to share with others, give back to those less fortunate, and in no way would I allow them to wear shorts in temperatures below sixty degrees.
In retrospect, maybe I didn’t achieve perfect. Sometimes I chose to watch The Bachelor rather than reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Perhaps the only green at breakfast was the marshmallow clover floating in their cereal bowls. Maybe the words “Clean your room and don’t make me ask again,” came flying out of my mouth in a decibel more appropriate for a football game than a child’s bedroom, and usually, I just wanted them to get some damn pants on, short or not, so they wouldn’t miss the bus. But, despite the bumps along the way, in my mind I always had more time. Time to guide them towards the smart, sweet, polite, charming men they were meant to be.
Last spring, though, I considered the possibility that Dylan’s words were true: that I was kind of done. I remember thinking that meant, not only am I not the perfect mom, I kind of suck. If I am done that meant the final product is two boys who, although loving, leave wet towels on the floor until the musty odor overtakes the back hallway. Boys who consider Eggo waffles to be a nutritious breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Boys who put juice cartons back in the fridge with only a swallow left at the bottom, and fling their smelly socks into the corner of the kitchen floor. I couldn’t even think about the girlfriends they dumped via text, the empty toilet paper rolls left dangling on the hook, and the half-finished homework left on the counter. Just thinking about it tempted me to pin a tag on each of them that said, “Dear future romantic partner, I’m sorry, I did the best I could. Good luck to you.” Mrs. Brady would have never let that happen.
“Oh Sherri, your boys are great, and you are not done yet,” my friend Victoria said to me one afternoon a few days after Dylan’s comment. She was trying to comfort me as I cried in my glass of chardonnay. “You are just getting just getting to the hard part.” The hard part?
“Soon you will have to back off and let them do their thing,” explained Victoria, the mother of two twenty-somethings. “There is nothing harder than watching a kid you love so much do really stupid things and knowing you can’t stop them,” she said, with a look of a woman who has been there. “And let me tell you, they make really, really dumb decisions.”
Over a year has passed since Dylan’s comment in the kitchen. In that time, a lot has changed (well, except for the wet towels). I see him maturing into that sweet, charming, intelligent young man I’d been hoping might emerge. He is now 18 and has graduated from high school; he is working full time and preparing to head off to college in a few weeks. And Victoria was right: my job as his mom this past year has challenged me.
I realized I needed to start loosening my parental grip a little, easing both Dylan and myself into his adulthood. (His younger brother, not so much yet.) I eased up on the reminders to get up for work, I learned to swallow the “don’t forget’s” and “where are you going’s” that threaten to pop out of my mouth daily. I even tossed out the curfew, and stopped checking Find My Phone for his whereabouts (although I haven’t deleted the app — hey, it’s progress).
I likened my parenting progression to dog poop. When my kids were younger, I had the ability to stop them from stepping smack dab in a stinky pile of dog poop on the sidewalk, sometimes with a gentle tap and sometimes with a loud “watch out!” Now that they’re teens, because they know everything, and I apparently know nothing, they step in the poop — and (after I’m done cussing) I clean the mess off their favorite Air Max sneakers so they don’t track it into the house. But I hope that, as young adults, they’ll be able to see the poop up ahead and make the choice to swerve around it, and if they step in it they will get to clean it up.
This doesn’t mean that when Dylan heads off to college this fall, and Brennan soon after, I won’t lie awake at night and worry, hoping they are safe, fed and happy. I know my heart will break a little when they get crushed by a first true love, or lose their way. At the same time, I will be ready to cheer them on as they grab their dream job, or embark on a new adventure. And grandkids someday? I’m definitely in for that! But above all else, I plan on being there for each of them when they do step in a big pile of poop, to hand them the bleach, and love them anyway. So, kind of done? Nope, I’m not even close.