“Having babies is fun, but babies grow up into people.” – Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H, “The Price of Tomato Juice”
I read a lot of memoirs, which means I spend a lot of time reliving heart-wrenching accounts of childhoods dashed to pieces by the misguided actions of parents. Reading about these experiences does nothing to ease my parental anxiety. I find myself constantly wondering, What will my adult children unearth with their therapist one day? Then I pat myself on the back because if they are proactive enough to seek the help of a therapist, I think I have done something right. I claim victory wherever possible at this stage of my life.
We all know that time is a great teacher, and most jobs get easier with experience. Parenting, however, does not work this way. Maybe I figured out how to be the mother of an infant or the mother of a toddler, but just about the time I would feel at ease, things changed and I needed to adapt.
There was a time it was hard to imagine a point when my kids would not need me every second of every minute of every day. I used to long for a time when they could feed or bathe themselves. It seemed like a faraway dream. But then one day both my children earned their green bands at our local pool. It meant they could swim without my supervision, which translated to sweet, sweet freedom for me. It was a taste of life without a child attached to my side. It was the beginning of a new chapter.
I am thankful for my children’s independence at 9 and 11 years old. They need me less and less for daily survival. They are capable of preparing their own snacks, washing their clothes, and putting themselves to bed at night. While I savor the lightness that comes with their self-sufficiency, I am also realizing that a heaviness of the mind and heart can be much more daunting.
They need me now to help guide them into adulthood, into humanity. They need me to help them navigate the treacherous waters of a scary world where kindness does not always exist. They need me to help them understand love, hate, rejection, loyalty, hard work, and determination. Gone are the days of sleep training and worrying about physical milestones. Now the stakes are higher — so much higher. My job description has changed, and I find myself looking back at the easy years with a sense of nostalgia.
The other day my husband and I were talking about a friend who just had a baby. He sarcastically mocked our confidence: “Yes, we should be offering parenting advice.” He was referring to our complete loss when it comes to handling our own headstrong children at the moment. We frequently wonder aloud, Well, we really messed these two up. Think we can get a do-over?
However, in this instance, I was quick to shoot down his jab. “We were good at that stage.” He agreed. Even though we never knew it at the time, we were solid parents of infants. I read all the books and handled sleep schedules; we hit all the milestones and made all the appointments. I was a full-time mom having put my career on hold while the kids were babies. I was the sole source of their earliest nourishment and nutrition — a literal life source. I was devoted, and my life revolved around those kids. It was my job. We were good.
Fast-forward to present-day and those kids can wipe their own butts and pack their own lunches. They read to themselves at night and walk unaccompanied into school. No, they can’t drive yet or go most places alone, but they are independent in so many ways.
Recently, on a teacher work day, my daughter told me they were having a “free-range kid day.” She meant they were making their own meals and planning their own schedule. She was beaming with pride as she told me about all the smart choices she was making for her day. That is the point, right? To train them to make their own responsible choices? Yet, I felt mixed emotions.
In this changing landscape of motherhood, what will my role look like? I am definitely not as physically present. I have a full-time career, own a business, and follow my own pursuits and hobbies outside of the home. My job description has hopefully expanded to include role model for living. I hope to show my kids the importance of fostering a love for learning and growing. I also hope to model the importance of healthy human relationships and connections.
But in many ways, I feel like less and less of an expert as a parent. I miss or forget an average of one to two school emails per week and often fail to register for the one hundredth gymnastics meet. The physical messes of my children’s infant years have been replaced with emotional and behavioral messes in their tween years. In many ways, I am not sure I am prepared for this new, more complex phase. And when I look back at my children’s baby pictures, I long for the days I could make everything better by simply snuggling and singing a sweet song.
It is easy for me to look at my early devotion as a mother and think I was “better” back then. If my kids slept, ate, and had on clean clothes, I was winning. These days success is not so easily measured. Are they good students, siblings, team members, athletes, friends, and human beings? And as they need me less for basic survival skills, am I giving them what they need? I like to think the groundwork has been laid. I am thankful for the luxury of time I was afforded to stay home with my babies when they were completely reliant on me — attached at the hip. But as they gain more independence, I get to see them test out those little wings as they venture further from the nest.
Maybe I no longer need to dress and feed them, but I have to be emotionally present and available for my kids at all times. Their constant need for support and understanding is much more consuming than changing diapers or late-night feedings ever were. It is heavy intellectual and heart work muddled in factors that are beyond my control. I have to be ready and able to enter each new phase with my children. We are writing this story one chapter at a time. I can only hope my husband and I will someday look back at this period of our lives with surprise and say, “What do you know? We were good at that stage.”