Because I didn’t figure this out until my second TEEN, and since my nesting days are numbered, I wanted to share this stroke of brilliance with others in case you’ve been suffering too.
I don’t know about your teens, but ours rarely had time to make themselves breakfast or even eat the one prepared for them, let alone contribute in the kitchen, without keeping a ride waiting or missing it altogether, particularly after the sink hole of showering & biological/sociological-mandated prepping which led to forgetting homework or instruments or cleats; so now we’ve flipped the morning:
Downstairs first–packing up, contributing, eating, and then as much time as they want upstairs, Ie. whatever time they’ve left for themselves.
(ps. as parents, try reversing the order for yourself. personal first. communal last.)
I stalled in first coming up my own driveway
due to the beauty and oblivion and bravado
a half dozen lemony butterflies
fluttering around my tires
and what appeared to be an adolescent
hopping back & forth
back & forth
across the way
uncertain how or where to lift off
“Mom? Mom? Mom!”
Trigger warning (for mothers of young ones): After growing inside your body, and nursing at your breast, and comforting himself on your lap, and later on your shoulder, there will come a day, when your child, will live, somewhere else. And he’ll open the door, eager to share his new home, and you’ll weep, behind your sunglasses, because it makes no sense to your heart that he is grown (and flown.)
If I was a Lioness,
I would pick him up
by the neck,
and nuzzle his face,
and lick him all over,
and tumble with him in the grass,
and lay on my back so that he could rest his head on my breast in sweet
surrender. But I am human, and we withhold such
devotion, and so I kiss his cheek too many times, and sidle up too
close on the couch, and hold his hand for an entire
block, almost. But my thirst is unquenchable–flesh
of my flesh, bone of my bone, heart of my heart, this
man. this man. this man? So that when we
part, my favorite drink tastes sour, my salad wilted, the crepe in my mouth, a weight, not a pleasure; the sun
barren, the water grey, the sky
hopeless, even above Lake Champlain, even the chocolate
too bitter with the certain defeat of
Mother. I was 13
when my breasts began to
ache, and home alone on a Sunday
afternoon, watched Born
Free on the colored television in the living room, and released all the
tears held inside, not just mine, but belonging to time–mothers,
lovers, reunions–like the one today, which left me with a belly of grief, which instead of swallowing like I often do, I released, with weeping, all the way to
Skinny Pancake, but not before a small Vietnamese woman, who lives in Montreal, rose from Bernie’s park where she was meditating with dozens of others dressed in bright yellow t-shirts–stood up and approached me to share the blessings and atrocities suffered by the practitioners of Falon Gong in China–hearts extracted and sold–and I lifted my sunglasses off my face, and we embraced, eyes shining, grateful for our connection and our capacity to know and share pain.
We pull away from the parking lot, and my heart folds over on itself–an abandoned weight in my chest–like a lump of bread lodged in a mourner’s throat.
“Did you want him to live with you forever?!” I say to myself.
(I didn’t. I don’t.)
Even so, I can’t hold my husband’s hand or look at him in the eyes for the part he played in crafting this heartache, namely, lending his sperm, 22 years earlier.
A sibling, conceived 5 years after the first, sits in the back seat, with his homework, and I’m thankful he’s still there, I really am, but it’s only a matter of time, so I can’t be too attached.
Basically, I’m fucked.
And the thing is, I knew this from the start–felt it in the vacancy of my belly–just after the emergency caesarean that separated me from the baby inside.
By the time Lloyd was a month old, I understood that this love story couldn’t have a happy ending.
Fortunately, a lot happens between birth and adulthood so the separation is more complex than a new mother might imagine with a babe suckling in her arms.
“Stop thinking about traveling,” Lloyd says, in his new (unbidden) role as our life consultant. “Finish those projects. Build that deck and patio. Landscape!”
I chuckle, bristling at his critique. “It’s not a diversion of funds, but a lack of them,” I say.
He smiles. “You and dad are going to be able to do so much when we’re both out of the house. You’ll probably finish your book in 5 months.”
I smile, and let the fantasy of uninterrupted focus glide over me, like a swig of brandy after a long ski. But I can’t think about that now. Aidan has another two years of high school (2 years!), and then there’s college, and then this: What is this? Who am I to this 21 year old?
“You and Aidan are my patio and my books,” I say. “Raising kind, strong, considerate men like you means more to me than a patio or a book.” And I mean it.
It’s been 57 days since we last saw Lloyd, and no, I wasn’t counting; I just looked that up on one of those online “how many days” sites (they exist), and seriously, his father and his brother were much more excited about seeing him than I was.
Until we pull up toward the curb at Skinny Pancake.
“Do you mind if I jump out first?” I ask my husband, before he navigates into the parking spot.
Aidan chimes in: “Can I jump out too!”
We both open our car doors.
I close mine.
He closes his.
Despite his fierce heart (or because of it) he capitulates.
“Thank you!” I yell back, as I scramble over the snow bank, and look out at Lake Champlain, before turning toward Skinny Pancake, only before I turn, I saw a man, watching, waiting, legs out outstretched.
He crosses the street and we embrace.
“You must be so cold,” I say, “Didn’t you want to wait inside? I’m sorry we’re so late. We stopped at King Arthur, just for coffees, and then Aidan insisted on buying 8 boxes of baking mixes. Then we had to stop again to pee. Don’t you have a hat?”
“I’m fine,” Lloyd says, and gently brushes my hands from his ears.
We crowd inside the restaurant, joining the herd of breath in line at the counter.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” he asks.
“We’re already here,” I say, sensing the first note of tension that always arises when time and food are involved with this particular child.
We look up at the menu board. The herd inches forward. Aidan joins us, and then Casey. The boys begin a banter that has no need of parents.
“It’s sad, right,” I say to my husband.
“It’s nice though, right,” he counters, unwilling to plunge into grief so soon.
Lloyd and Aidan continue talking for a good 10 minutes, and then just before we make it to the counter, Aidan scrambles up a small set of stairs to claim our favorite booth; and Lloyd and I follow.
“Can I sit next to Lloyd first,” I ask, knowing that the rest of the morning will be spent in Connect Four competition between them (a game they’ve been playing here ever since Lloyd’s freshman year.)
Lloyd obliges, and shimmies in beside me, and I scooch closer to him, until our thighs touch, and my left arm winds around his right, and my lips press into his bristly, but forever familiar cheek, or onto his neck or shoulder.
“Is this too much? Am I too close?”
(I don’t care.)
Ever since he went away to college, and then Central America, and then Europe (Eastern and Western; with a brief foray into Northern Africa), not to mention the extended summer at the Jersey shore, it’s his skin that I want most, more than the depth of conversation we’ve shared over a lifetime, ever since he could talk really, mostly philosophy, but also music and economics and politics.
Mom, how does love break your heart?
Where do faces go when they die?
Does the Sun know everything, even God?
Why is this green piece of paper worth more than that one?
I can’t take any more of Clinton-Lewinski stuff; turn it off!
Each morning on our drive over the mountain, Lloyd and I would listen to NPR, and depending on whether we got out of the house early or late, we’d take in the news before (or after) our favorite part of the morning: The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor (who I finally took the boys to see last summer); and in between the news and the almanac, we’d talk about trucks (if we saw one), especially backhoes and front loaders and excavators (even though one of us was secretly had no curiosity in trucks; something I finally confessed to Lloyd, a year later, in the library, because I just couldn’t read another book about them. He was 5.)
As mothers and first-borns often do, Lloyd and I shared a lifetime before the birth of his brother; and now we’ve come to this: 48 hours together at a time, spread months apart, over the course of an entire year; and this visit, half of that. Which I did count, but not until we said goodbye.
The original plan was that Casey and I would make a day trip up to Burlington to spend the day with Lloyd between classes and restaurant shifts. But his schedule kept shifting. “Wednesday is good,” he said. “No, Monday wold be better.” And then once the plans were set: “Actually Tuesday would be best.”
Finally, I said: “Lloyd, are you sure you want us to come?”
“I do,” he insisted. “I’m really looking forward to it,” and then he launched into all the things we might do, especially if we came on Tuesday after his EMT class and stayed over until Wednesday before his Auto Mechanics class.
I hadn’t planned on an overnight, and wasn’t eager for the effort or the cost as I’d already been away four times in the past month, but sensing the opening, I made a suggestion: “If I booked a hotel room, would you stay with us,” and when he balked, I later messaged him: “I’ve booked a place on the side of town near TJ Maxx,” knowing that it would be hard for him to resist such a lure as his adolescent mecca–which he insisted on locating on every trip out of our mountain town throughout his high school years, including our week touring Acadia National Park.
“I also want to take you grocery shopping,” I said, “We could do Trader Joes.”
Feeding an adult child or filling his refrigerator is one of remaining maternal pleasures. Last year when Lloyd was living and working on a horse farm in Spain, he gave me a gift I’ll never forget. We were Skyping and the first thing that I noticed, beyond the contrast of our wintry New England dwelling and his equatorial one–the bright lemony light and the sound of birds–was the richer hue of his skin (naturally olive at birth) and his lips… swollen. wrinkled. cracked.
“Are you drinking enough water,” I said, with the desperation of a nursing mother separated from her babe.
“I am,” he said, though I didn’t believe him.
“Are you sure?” I pressed. “You lips are so dry.”
And just then, right in front of me, he lifted a glass of water to his lips and swallowed.
I think of it often.
A year earlier we were on our knees in the kitchen on the morning he would return to school after the long winter break. It had been a rich time of reconnecting until the last week when he regressed into an earlier incarnation of himself, and I met him there, unable to make it anything but personal.
Lloyd came bounding down the stairs sooner than I expected and discovered me sorting though his boxes.
“What are you doing,” he said, furious at the intrusion.
“I know. I know,” I said, “but you put all kinds of things in this box that don’t belong together, and I just wanted to reorganize it.”
He grabbed the items I had carefully sorted and tossed them back into the large box, making it worse than before, until he came upon the electric tea kettle, which I had purchased for him after his first semester, so that he might drink medicinal teas in addition to whatever was served at frat parties, but which I later learned that he and his room mate used to boil hotdogs…
What ensued was a tug of war–a 51 year old woman, a 19 year old man, and a stainless steel kettle.
It could have been funny.
If it was on Netflix.
Finally, we locked eyes, the kettle between us, and I said: “Just let me have this,” and Lloyd must have seen something that he hadn’t let himself see before, or that I never revealed before or knew myself–that this wasn’t about whether or not he had packed the box right, or who was in charge, or where the kettle should go.
Lloyd let go.
I’m two years wiser now, and so is he, and late on Tuesday night at the hotel, just as the rest of us were getting into bed, he announces that he os going to go do some laundry in the coin-operated machines, and that he’ll go to the gym while he’s waiting.
He returns before midnight, and I easily fall back to sleep with an appreciation of his growing awareness of doors and lights and toilets. An hour later, however, I am woken again when he hollers something about “shifts” and “schedules” and “tables”–the recurring nightmare of those who put themselves through school (and onto planes into foreign countries) through restaurant work, which is how his father and I met.
I wince, wondering how a mother is supposed to respond to the suffering of a 21 year old, but then I settle back into sleep with the sweet awareness of his presence– beside me–in the next bed–the four of us breathing together–as we had for so many years–and might never again.
Long before dawn, I wake again, with sweat rising between my breasts and in the crook of my elbows and behind my knees–a reminder that these mothering years are soon to be swept away–like the castles we built as a family in the sand.
Soon after, I wake yet again, to a stronger sensation, something I’d never quite experienced before–the pounding of my heart–so insistent–that it feels like a knock on a door.
I put my hand over it, fearing my heart would leap out of my chest; and just as quickly, it stopped, as if I’d had dreamed the whole thing; and I made a mental note to ask my doctor about increasing (or decreasing) my progesterone cream dosing.
The next morning we showered and ate and shopped some more, and then I pressed for some time together beside the water.
After a short stroll, we headed down to a beach, and the guys built rock sculptures as they have for a lifetime, and I took photos of sunlight and the lake that I’ve come to know and love over the years since Lloyd has been in Burlington.
I’ve spent many a winter week on Lake Champlain, writing, in a sweet house-sitting gig with a cat named Clyde. One winter (the winter of the tea kettle tug of war), I walked across this water, just past the Marina where Lloyd waits tables in the summer.
“It hasn’t frozen at all this year,” he tells me, and I feel sad and concerned to hear this, but also relieved for him as the wind chill in Burlington is brutal, and winter here has long been his bane, which makes me wild with maternal wonder at why he returns, again and again, insistent on mastering himself in this place.
“I might get my Captain’s license,” he says, which leaves me equally wondering, because we both share a fear of death in frozen waters, and because as an infant, his small, tender sinuses, often blocked, made him gasp for air on breezy days; but now he claims that he loves the feel of the wind on his face on open water.
“Are we becoming one of those families,” Lloyd chides when I press for a group photo; but I don’t bite; because I’m mastering something too–myself–apart from his (or for that matter, anyone’s) view.
This has felt like a shedding of late; molting comes to mind. “Molt, molt,” I say to myself, each time I hold on too tightly.
“It’s time to go,” I say, knowing that it could take at least ten minutes to get across town to the chiropractor appointment that Lloyd surprisingly (and not surprisingly) scheduled in our last hour together.
“Couldn’t you have picked another day?” I asked when he first told us about it; but now, I only say: “I want my goodbye with you, here, in the sun, instead of rushed, in an office parking lot.”
Lloyd and I embrace beside the water and then release, and re-embrace, lingering longer, before we walk up from the beach toward the road where Casey is waiting with the car.
We arrive across town with plenty of time for more goodbyes, but I stay in the car because I’ve already had mine; and still, Lloyd leans forward, and embraces me, not once, but twice (or was it three times), before he gets out with his things.
He stands for a long while beside the trunk with his father and brother, but I don’t look, until Casey and Aidan are back inside the car, and then I watch him cross the parking lot, and turn to wave, and we all watch as he turns back one more time, to wave yet again, before fading around a corner.
We sit and breathe. 3 bodies. A vacant seat. A return home. Without him.
“Ready?” my husband asks, and when I nod, he backs up the car, and pulls past the building, where to our surprise, we find Lloyd waiting to wave to us one more time; seeming more like the little boy I drove over the mountain to the preschool instead of the one who lives here without me.
Before turning onto the road, I watch Lloyd step up onto the porch, and turn yet again, with another wave; and just when my heart can’t bear any more, he enters the building, and I wave to the window, but he isn’t there.
One summer a few years back, I stumbled upon a brilliant act of self-love. I arranged for both of our boys to be away from home at the same time.
Our oldest departed early Sunday morning on a road trip with his girlfriend, while our youngest was scheduled to be dropped off at camp that very afternoon.
On the drive over to Waubanog, my husband turned to me with a giddy whisper, asking What do you want to do AFTER…!
I could barely contain my delight and hoped my son wouldn’t see or sense it from the backseat.
Mostly we slept, and went out to eat, and enjoyed lots of summer cocktails.
A week later, we’d also learned some things about ourselves; things we could no longer blame on the kids:
1. We make lots of messes.
2. We use lots of glasses.
3. We depend on their noise, demands, connection & love to direct our days, our emotions, our very thoughts.
4. We’d do well to focus more on our own shit. Inside and out. There’s plenty there.
5. They apparently keep animals away from our gardens.
(Either that or they arranged for the groundhog to eat all the greens so that they wouldn’t have to.)
6. Casey & I still enjoy each others company more than we do anyone else. (Following some initial turbulence.)
7. We can’t wait for them to leave, and when they’re finally gone, we miss them. (Duh.)
8. We have softer edges without them, but much less dimension.
9. There will always be an Aidan and a Lloyd shaped empty space in our hearts once they’ve grown.
(Sappy, but true. OUCH.)
10. Even without the distraction, disturbance & delight of children, we don’t “get done” what we imagined.
11. Our lives without them will easily out distance the day-to-day we’ve shared as a family.
At the end of that summer, our oldest and his beloved set to repainting his walls. Their youthful abandon spilled out of his room and down the stairs and into the kitchen; as did the palpable presence of endings–he would leave for college that week and they would break up rather than endure a long distance relationship (and I was not to ask about how or if we would see her once he was gone.)
Add to this the juxtaposition of my baby sister’s first born who had just celebrated his first birthday. His milestones seemed to be engaged in some kind of parallel dance with those taking place in my home.
I hold no regrets. I have lived well and loved our years with children; and I am proud to see them spread their wings; though what is also true is that I can barely breathe at the thought of a completely empty house, or imagine one that doesn’t begin and end with camps and semesters and vacations.
When the boys were babies, Casey & I would race up the stairs to be the first to arrive after naptime–to be that holy recipient of their precious waking gaze of delight & devotion.
At the end of that week apart, instead of a set of stairs, it was a steep hill, and the baby was 13 and he was smelly, carrying all of his gear from a week in a tent. Casey wore flip flops. I chose sneakers. I may have pushed him off the path. More than once.
What I’ve learned most from my time with and apart from my children is something I feel a bit embarrassed to share…
A deep & abiding love for myself, and the pleasure of my own company.
Which alas, grew out of my fierce love for them–both in their comings and their goings.
This past week, in another brilliant act of self-love, I sent my husband off on a trip to retrieve our youngest from his time at the shore with his young cousin–who is now 4 years old.
It was a hard decision not to go along. I missed his little sister’s second birthday. I missed spending time with my entire extended family. I missed a beach trip I’ve taken every summer since we moved to the mountains 23 years ago.
But I also felt conflicted about leaving because it was my oldest son’s birthday, and even though he lived three hours away and planned to spend his 21st with his friends instead of coming home, I wanted to be here. Just to the hold the place of home if nothing else.
I also wanted to write. And to find myself. And to hear my own thoughts. Especially as my first born came of age.
After the initial pangs of emptiness, I settled into a delicious morning of word and bird song and green tea.
Once upon a time, with a college degree and honors, I embarked on an unexpected and ambiguous career.
21 years later, I’m ready to retire.
“You can’t retire,” my sons tell me, even though they both shave.
Why not? My contemporaries are doing it. They’re leaving the office and the classroom and the police force, and not only are they celebrated, but they’re expected to reward their years of effort with relaxation–to allow their minds soften into something new.
“I’m worried that I’m living like I’m retired,” a friend says, on a Tuesday morning, in the cafe at our local co-op, after we realize that we’re sitting at adjacent tables.
I turn my chair toward her and explain that I’ve been considering just that.
“Why are we expected to jump into the next thing without the opportunity to get to know ourselves again?” I say.
She nods her head, “I’m not the same person I was before.”
We both know that our partners lives have been reshaped by parenting, but they’ve been able to move forward with their careers and identities, while ours have snagged or circled or more often, met dead ends.
Although we’re are a decade apart (her oldest and my youngest are peers), my younger friend and I share a mounting anxiety about what we’re supposed to be doing, and if we’re doing it wrong, and even worse, if what we’re not doing… is unfair, particularly as our children come of age.
“We have to claim this time,” I say, “Not just for ourselves, but for all the other mothers (and fathers) who come after us.”
I tell her about another friend who once asked in a panic, “Is it okay that I keep changing my mind? Taking jobs. Leaving them. I don’t know what I want. I can’t figure out how to manage it all.”
My friend nods knowingly.
“We should write a book about this!” I say.
We both laugh, accustomed to bouncing big ideas like this off of one another, in between conversations about our most pressing realities: homework and driver ed and emerging sexuality.
“Too bad one of us doesn’t have her PhD,” I say.
My friend shakes her head. Our parenting years have robbed us of the illusion of (and the inclination toward) expertise.
“We have to start by recognizing caregiving as a career,” I say. “There is so little understanding and appreciation of its dimensions, particularly after the early years.”
What follows is an extended back and forth about all the ways that parenting a teenager and even a young adult require careful attention and artistry. I tell my friend about an elderly mother that I met with my husband over the weekend. She came to town to help her son through his divorce. My husband was touched at this act of motherly devotion, but I felt something else–An awareness that this career never reaches a finish line.
My friend glances at the time on her computer. “I have to get to some errands before I pick up the kids.” We hug goodbye, and I turn back to my computer to outline the trajectory of the caregiving role.
The hours of the primary caregiver:
Infant: See above
Toddler: See above
Preschool age: Overtime
School age: Full time
Highschooler: Night shift
Young adult: Contractural
When I finish the list, I realize that I’m twenty minutes late to pick up my son from Driver’s Ed.
Later that evening, on a way to an event, I tell my husband: “I’m frustrated when others ask what I do. Everyone raises kids, but it’s what people do for a living that distinguishes them. It’s as if consciously raising two human beings is some small thing.”
Suddenly the enormity of my devotion occurs to me:
Two human beings.
TWO HUMAN BEINGS!
“I’m so proud of me,” I say. “I want a party and new pair of Birkenstocks.”
~ Addendum: RESOURCES FOR UNDERSTANDING THE ENORMITY OF PRIMARY CAREGIVING ROLE