Wednesday, February 10, 2010

“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”

-Poet Mary Oliver

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My nine-year old son shrugged my arm off his shoulders with a glare as we walked to the bus stop. We weren't at the bus stop, mind you, just walking down the street, with no one else in sight. I get it. It's how he prepares to leave home and take on the ferocious responsibilities of his day—recess, lunch, being a student, a friend and, above all, cool. Fourth grade is hardly fun and games. The kids are no longer sheltered by their "little kid" dazzle with the world; they've begun to see the bigger picture and recognize the power of the social pecking order, jockeying for their places like half crazed bumper car drivers. The refinements have yet to come.

It's hard to be successful out there and not question your status as mama's boy. Adam said as much the other night when I took a chance and gently lamented the loss of the little boy who'd cuddle up to me on the couch without a second thought. He thought for a moment and said, "I sort of wish I could go back, too."

Friday, November 13, 2009

I have finally gained a glint of clarity on what is a murky time of high emotion. We are looking at a stage of motherhood, when our children are no longer young, perhaps for the first time. Motherhood the institution has long been inspected, judged, and defined by a society that both exalts an ideal at the same time that it devalues the reality at nearly every turn. And although for a while mamas have taken matters in their own hands—in blogs, books, articles—sharing, exploring and exposing every aspect of their relationships to their children, to themselves as stay-at-home, working, overly involved, or neglectful mothers, like so much else that is about women, it's about young and sexy, about small, cute, babies wreaking havoc with pre-parenthood lives. And Madison Avenue keeps pace by focusing its lens on the only women it ever sees—polished, slender, young—and in the case of mothers, with bright-eyed babies slung on hips like colorful adornments.

So, as our children grow, we disappear. There's no "What to Expect" for us as our kids move on, challenging us to redefine who we are, not just in relation to them, but to ourselves. That is the task at hand.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The other day I had coffee with a friend, an artist and writer, who had recently sent his daughter to college. Not long ago, she called him to share the good news that the school cafeteria has soy yogurt—a type of joyous, off-the-cuff communication that was so unlike the defiant, secretive adolescent he and his wife had been living with. The college girl is launched; her father bereft.

"I was involved with her every day for all of these years, and she was so interesting to me," he said. "Now what am I supposed to do with my life?"

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not Empty Nest Syndrome

Last fall, I ran into a friend of mine who had recently sent her only child off to college.

“I fell into bed for a month,” she said. “I was so depressed, I didn’t want to move.”

As I listened to her describe how the sadness began to ease after his first few visits home, I was thinking that surely I would be better prepared to let my first-born go the next year. My friend, I reasoned, must have suffered so because her nest was emptied, something I wouldn’t be facing for another decade.

The summer before Ben left for college, I kept checking in with friends who were priming for the same event. We talked about how relieved we would be not to lie awake nights until they came home, not having to wonder where they were or what they were doing. We patted each other on the back for having raised capable, independent young men. But we also imagined our sadness, acknowledging that a phase of life was over and we’d have to move on.

The day came. Pulling our minivan in front of his dorm to unload felt as if we were taking part in some ancient ritual. Ben let me make his bed, arrange the bath towels. We met the roommates, the roommates’ parents, stayed only a little longer than we probably should have, and then said goodbye, making as small a scene as six people in the hallway can.

Then I lost it. My heart, that is. I really didn’t know how to explain the tears that would well up with blinding suddenness, the ache that made my breath short, my fixation on the little bubble on my computer screen where we would sometimes instant message. I tried not to tell him too often that I missed him. I didn’t tell him that I’m incredulous that 18 years have passed so quickly, that I don’t know how to think of him abstractly, or that I don’t know how I can be so happy for him and so terribly distraught at the same time.

I thought I had become used to his absence during his senior year of high school as the necessities of his life become less and less a part of our family routine. I got it; I applauded and supported the independence that he has been insisting on since he was a little boy. My role wasn’t changing that much: we still have two adolescents and an eight-year old at home. So what hurts so much?

Maybe it’s that letting Ben go has shed new light images etched in my mind unchanged for 36 years. When I decided at 18 that instead of college in the US I wanted to go to France, my parents, without much fuss, sent me to the University of Grenoble. In 1972, there was no email, no instant messenger or cell phones, and overseas phone calls were made only in duress. I still have the stack of blue, paper-thin aerogrammes with my mother’s breezy record of what my brothers and sister were up to, who came to dinner, and what she fixed. She wrote about her piano students and tennis games, my grandparents’ visits. She responded to descriptions of my adventures and told me that she was proud of me.

In the spring of that year, my mother and father came to visit me in France and we spent a week traveling together. We drove a rented car and stayed at the kind of hotels I couldn’t afford on my own. I remember being proud that I could speak French, and I remember laughing—a lot. I don’t remember my mother complaining about the indigestion that must have been the earliest signs of the cancer that would kill her less than two years later. When I returned home, I had a few more months before her diagnosis changed the trajectory and foundation of my life.

So of course I wonder how my grief over the departure of my boy is bound up with the most traumatic and fundamental loss of my life. Already six years older than my mother was when she died, I think I’ve had enough therapy to realize that my fate and her’s need not be the same. But maybe I’m stuck with this sense of loss just a bit longer than I would like because I have no clear idea of what is next. Having lost my mother just as I was becoming an adult, I can only imagine what our relationship might have become. With no experience of what might lie ahead for Ben and me, I fall back on what never was.

As we were getting ready to see Ben for the first time since he left home, I thought about arriving at his school and wrapping my arms around him. But I could get no further than that. Because he’s a sweet boy, I knew he’d return my embrace and probably accept my need to hold on just a bit longer than he might like. And although I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to let go, I knew I would, and then we would see what came next.