Mom, Interrupted

by Stephanie Riley
Originally Published: 
A blonde mom sitting in the middle plane seat between two men
Matej Kastelic / Shutterstock

It occurs to me, somewhere near 30,000 feet, that I need to get some sleep.

It has been a rough two weeks. Truth be told, it has been a rough two years. Between all the school events, interviews with bridal vendors, tutoring appointments, therapy sessions and swim practices, I admit I’m a little run down. That feeling that you can’t do one more thing had been creeping up on me for some time.

Then I learned what “tired” really feels like.


I listened carefully as the doctor explained about the tumors in my mom’s right lung. I took some time to re-examine the details of the appointment with my brothers. I did some research of my own and learned it would be fine. And then I cried.

I am not a crier. I am a doer. While others are blathering on about what is unfair in their lives, I like to think that I am the one who takes the bull by the horns and actually does something.

I tell myself I know how to do this. I have been “research mom” longer than I have been a mom. Infertility treatments, adoption, speech therapy, fundraising—nothing in my life has been safe from the possibility of being researched ad nauseam.

Just as I was launching an all-out assault on my mother’s cancer (no, I’m not a doctor), I found myself sitting in front of another pair of doctors. They were taking great care in explaining that our son has more than just “quirks.” “It is autism,” they said.

I will learn everything I can. We will fill in all those gaps with the social cues and inferences and sensory processing issues. Ten years from now, when he is programming NASA computers, you will never know there was ever a diagnosis.

There’s only one problem with these grand plans at the moment: I’m tired. Between all the assessments, meetings, events, late nights doing research, tearful discussions, well, I’m just tired.

I want my mama.


Somewhere above Utah it dawns on me that at this particular time in my life, I am going to have to mother myself. Perhaps I had to render myself fully incapable of nurturing anyone else—by virtue of geographic separation—in order to allow myself to turn my energy inward.

I admit it is not all that comfortable to focus on myself. But I rest, for what seems like the first time in months, as the engine noise and the gentle movement of the plane rocks me to sleep. There is no Internet. There is nothing to do but rest now, maybe read, and it feels strange and wonderful all at once. Unplugged.

I wake up near Dallas, wondering what my family is doing.

The kids are at school. Erin has a report due Wednesday. I have forgotten to help Nick write out his note cards for his presentation on his family tree. His writing is illegible, even to himself. Mental note: Email Mike and see if he can finish the last two or three cards.

There I go again.

I have heard that our job as parents is to make ourselves obsolete. I have a very hard time letting go of even the most minute details. I don’t want to be obsolete! Something about being a mom makes me feel indispensable. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Maybe as mothers, we secretly build in little ways that we ensure our importance just to avoid becoming obsolete. If I don’t teach them how to do laundry, for example, they will always need me.

No, no, I don’t want to be doing their laundry forever. But I also don’t want to be replaced by their peers, spouses or in-laws. I want to be their mommy forever. When my preteen sang “Halfway Gone” along with the radio, it sunk in that she is halfway gone. In six years, she will be in college.

Even at the age of 42, I know that my own mom is irreplaceable. I feel this acutely just now. When our family all came down with H1N1, I wanted my mommy. I distinctly remember calling for her from the bathroom. It was futile. She was 30 minutes away. Maybe she still heard me?

Just because you are a mommy doesn’t mean you ever stop needing your own mother.

I think about my mom. I am on the cusp of a possibly frightening journey with her. How could I leave town at such an impossible time? I ask myself. Deep down, I know I must recharge my batteries for the next chapter.

I think about my son. While a piece of paper—or rather, a 22-page report—does not change the person he is, it may change his path. I need to chew on this a little bit. I still believe that he will be an astronaut or the next innovator at Apple. I will fight adjusting my lofty dreams.

This trip came at the right time, I tell myself.

We as people, all of us, are constantly required to adjust our plans. Who ever looks back at their life and says, “Oh yes, this is exactly what I thought would happen”? Somewhere along the line, life throws us a curve ball just to make sure we are awake. Don’t get too comfortable, because inevitably there will be more than one.

At this very moment, I can’t do anything to prepare, to research, to know more, to be ahead of the curve ball that I know is coming. All this adjusting and reacting and finding a new dream takes energy.

This time, I give in to the inevitability of change, and just sleep.

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