My eldest son just graduated from the University of Michigan. It is a bittersweet moment; on the one hand I am beaming with pride that he graduated from my alma mater and is heading out into the world to make his mark. But, I also feel a little lost knowing my role as mother has irrevocably changed.
I never liked babysitting, never had the urge to be a camp counselor; the oldest of three, my mother hired a babysitter for my siblings instead of asking me to watch them. Was it apparent even in my formative years that kids weren’t my thing?
Barely out of college I married a guy that was 12 years my senior. A biological clock was ticking, but it wasn’t mine. Three dogs and two cats later—I had not convinced him that fur babies were just as good as human ones. A year and a half into a marriage that only lasted three years, I found myself the mother of a baby—human.
I kept waiting for those perfect Pampers commercial moments to happen, a happy baby cooing in his mother’s arms, she in flowy yoga clothes, her hair up in a jaunty ponytail looking rested and calm. Instead Jake suffered from colic and I had Postpartum Depression. Most days were a competition to see who could sob more. Competitive by nature I wasn’t going to let this tiny, wailing creature win! Teach them early how to cope with disappointment! No participation trophies in this house! The first year was just a dizzying blur, like a carousel set for light speed.
Eventually the clouds lifted thanks to Mylanta (for him), Zoloft (for me) and a pricey divorce (for everyone). He began to sleep through the night, like 12 hours at a time—can I get a hallelujah? And he started to talk. Talking is monumental; just tell me what you need! No more guessing what all the wailing, noises and pointing meant, I had actual words! Ba! You want a ball? A bottle? A bat? Well, at least it narrowed down what he wanted. I even got to finally rock a jaunty ponytail and I discovered I look wretched in flowy yoga clothes.
Once you get past the sleepless nights, sore nipples, constantly wiping bodily fluids off of everything and never getting to drink a hot cup of coffee, parenting becomes a lot more—fun. Yes, I said fun. Jake became this awesome, fully formed human that had distinct likes and dislikes, was endlessly inquisitive, thought I was the most brilliant person on the planet and still let me dress him however I wanted.
We’d play this game, one I’m sure nearly every parent has played—what noise does this animal make? A cow goes? Moo! A duck goes? Quack! A dog goes? Woof! One day he kept asking for more and more animals, I had gotten past all the barnyard classics and was rattling off more exotic animals—elephants, dolphins, wolves—and then I said leopard. He sat back and got really pensive, then leaped up and yelled, “leopard, leopard, leopard!” He totally cracked himself up, he was so elated, thought he was so clever; I thought he was pretty clever, too.
As a kid of the 90’s he was a big fan of Toy Story; he’d run around the house with his Buzz and Woody dolls yelling, “To inflinnity and beyond!” No, that’s not a typo, and yes, we still say “inflinnity”.
If I had married someone that never wanted kids, I would have been okay with that. Or so I thought; the truth is I loved this whole mothering thing. I was barely 24 when I had him; we grew up together. Sure, I read every parenting book and subscribed to every parenting magazine, but more often than not I just figured things out as they came along.
Go splash in the puddles? Sure. Dig in the dirt? Of course! Order the spicy Thai noodles? Yes, please. I had three non-negotiables—take a bath, learn to swim, and get good grades. We’d figure out the rest. Sometimes we saw movies that were too scary, and occasionally we ended up having conversations at 10 that probably should have waited until he was 16. We’re all going to end up in therapy, so you should at least have good stories to tell. For the record, he bathes regularly, knows how to swim and his grades never disappointed me.
By the time he was a teen, I was thankful that I had treated him more like a short adult than a child. We had open conversations about sex, drugs and booze. He trusted me with conversations about love and relationships. He came to me when his anxiety was through the roof. His choices didn’t always reflect my personal beliefs, but I wasn’t here to keep him from making poor choices or making my choices, I was here to help pick him up and talk about what he learned from those experiences.
And then he went off to college. I was sure my days of mothering him were over. Total independence just 45 minutes from home! Thankfully I never taught him how to cook or do laundry. My husband (I remarried and had another son, because the first kid worked out so well) would chastise me for this repeatedly over the four years of college. What he had missed was that it was a strategic move on my part. Brilliant, right?
Laundry brought home at regular intervals meant sitting at the kitchen island catching up over warm mugs of coffee. Sick, tired or stress out, he’d show up at the house for a home-cooked meal. He needed me! Eventually he wanted to learn to cook for himself. The laundry? Not so much.
Sitting at lunch with a girlfriend, my phone rang. “Broccoli, bell peppers and carrots will all keep in the fridge for awhile. Okay, bye.” He was at the grocery store trying to figure out what to buy that he could cook. The phone rings again, “You want the good sourdough bread from Zingerman’s.” And again, “Boneless, skinless chicken breasts.” And again, “2% Greek yogurt, I’m partial to Fage.” The last time the phone rings I pick it up and before he can even ask I say, “large, grade A, cage free eggs.” He says, “how did you know that was what I was going to ask?” Every grocery story is laid out the same. Occasionally, he still thinks I’m brilliant.
Right after graduation he left to spend his summer in Europe. I was sure I’d barely hear from him for the next three months…but then he needed to do laundry. So, from 4,000 miles away, translating French and converting metrics, I walked him through doing his laundry. It would take four more calls, one for each load, but we got it done. As it turns out—when everything changes, nothing changes at all.