Just Like That, My Baby Grew Up

by Allison Slater Tate
Originally Published: 
A dark-haired teen boy in a black sweater looking directly in the camera's direction with a door beh...

It happened just like that.

The first six weeks of his life were an entire lifetime in and of themselves. Every second of every day was full, overflowing with effort and sweat and emotions and the searing desperation that comes with sleep deprivation.

By the time I leaned over him at his first birthday party, my husband beside me, and blew out his candles on his Elmo/beach ball-birthday cake, I was a different woman than I had been a year before, and he was a whole person: a toddler, a boy obsessed with balls and tunnels and swings.

After that, there were years that felt slow and years that felt fast. His legs shot out beneath him. His cheekbones chiseled themselves out of his round baby cheeks. His hair thickened. Baby teeth fell out and huge, amazingly straight teeth replaced them. He became a real boy.

I have to admit something. At some point, lost beneath laundry and sports schedules and robotics tournaments and math homework, in between science fair projects and birthday parties and Minecraft marathons, I kind of forgot. I knew that it would all go very fast, but I still, somehow, forgot just a little bit that once those years were gone, they were gone forever and irretrievable. I forgot, for a moment or many, that it’s a special grief that parents must continually and consistently endure: being at once nothing but grateful our children are growing and healthy, and yet at the same time, painfully aware of the loss of something with each year they put behind them.

I swear that in the end, it truly happened overnight. Although he passed into tweenhood a few years ago, my firstborn was still my kid until just recently. But sometime in the past few months, a switch flipped. He started staying up later, restless. He started sleeping in later, exhausted. He wanted more privacy, more time in his room to read and play video games and do his own thing. He makes his own food when he wants it. He is at school or practice more than he is at home. He still comes to see me, to say good morning or goodnight, but he has truly passed over into a different land now.

And it really did happen just like that: as if all the days and weeks and years before now never existed, or flashed by like some newfangled CGI effect. Now he is taller than I am, and he has secrets and dreams and hopes and fears of his own that I can only guess at (because he certainly isn’t offering them up). He’s all angles and planes, and our hugs are long but somewhat awkward because of his long arms that don’t quite know what to do with me.

You know the minute you become a mother that someday, you will have to let that baby go. You know that they are not yours to keep, not forever. If you do your job right, you make yourself obsolete. That’s the goal. That’s the point.

What nobody told me was that the letting go starts so early. I thought I had time. I thought there would be moments enough so that when I added them all up, I would feel that yes, we had done it all. I believed it would feel complete somehow. Instead, I find myself panicking a little. He feels slippery to me, like sand I can’t quite keep in my cupped hands. I feel like I keep tapping his shoulder, asking him to look back, but he naturally wants to turn and keep striding forward on those long legs that baffle me. This is it, I think. He’s still my boy. He’s still my baby. But he belongs to himself and the world now, and I have to start letting him do that. I have to start, little by little, letting out the seams and unraveling the hems.

Thirteen, please be kind to me. I’m trying to be a good mom. I am trying not to hover, not to hold him back. I’m squeezing my eyes shut and turning my head, hoping he will fall gently when he does, knowing I can’t rescue him. I’m trying. But this is hard stuff. This is the hardest work of motherhood: knowing I have to let him go, knowing I can’t save him from heartache and failure, and then accepting that with what grace I can muster and handing him to the world.

I feel like I’m on the fastest downward spiral of the roller coaster now: the part where the wind is knocking the air out of my chest and I want to laugh, but I can’t catch my breath long enough to do so. My instinct is to hold on for dear life, but I hope I am brave enough to let my hands fly up so they can catch the air and I can enjoy the ride to come. I hope he can too.

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