I recall a young woman some years ago who, having just outlined an ambitious list of things she wanted to do with her life, shrugged and said about her impending motherhood, “Well, it’s just 18 years and you’re done.”
I don’t know how life turned out for her, but I know this – when it comes to parenthood, you’re never really done. As the mother of sons in their 30s, I am no longer actively parenting. No lunches to make, last-minute cupcakes to bake, discipline problems to figure out or bedtime stories to read. But I am still a parent whose children and their well-being are foremost in my mind. This surprises me a little.
Growing up I never babysat or thought babies all that interesting. As an adult I didn’t (and still don’t) ooohh and aahh at the sight of a baby, though I figured I might want one or two of my own someday. But later. I was busy with husband and career. And even when my firstborn was laid in my arms in the hospital, my first reaction was “Yipes, now what do I do?”
I had even taken a leave of absence from work rather than just leave my job, which is mostly how it was done in those days, since I didn’t know how I’d do with a stay-at-home lifestyle. And right away I took to this new little person, so I thought it might be worth staying home to actually raise him. We scrimped, managed with one car and one old black-and-white TV and pretty much no meals out – and it was fine.
Enter child No. 2 and I was really getting into this. Although I had begun work as a freelance writer (typing stories – remember typewriters? – at 1 a.m. when everyone else was asleep), but I was room mother at school, did the school’s newsletter, served on school district committees and drove kids to piano lessons, soccer, play rehearsals and everything else kids seem to need to be driven to. I loved being a mom.
Eventually our sons grew up and moved out, and they are living their lives – happily for them – doing things they love and in places where they want to be. So, job over, right?
Yes and no. Obviously, their need for parenting is pretty much done, but my need to be a parent to them isn’t. Not in the same way as I was when they were under our roof, of course, but I still feel that same fierce love, protectiveness and desire to be a part of their lives. I do dial it back (please picture my sons smiling that “oh sure” smile now) and limit nagging, suggestions and intrusions as much as I possibly can – a huge sacrifice for me. But in addition to loving them, I like them and find them interesting people.
It’s not that I don’t have a life of my own, work I enjoy, a husband just about broken in now and a lot of things I like to do that have nothing to do with offspring. But there is nothing that makes me happier than when we get to spend time with our sons. What’s with that?
I’m pretty sure they like spending time with us, too, and even welcome a little active parenting. OK, not too much of that active parenting thing, but I can tell when it’s one of those open moments. The conversation can be serious or sentimental, but what I notice is how they warm to the sounds of home rather than getting caught up with the topic at hand. I liken it to a dose of parental balm, kind of like that hug you give a child when he’s been hurt and you reassure him that everything is going to be OK. And for a little guy, it really was OK if Mom said it was. It doesn’t work quite that way when they’re adults, but I think the hug value is still there.
And when good things happen for them or they call just to tell us a little something that took place that day, which they more and more make an effort to do, I am filled with the same warmth I felt when they’d come running through the door excitedly waving a drawing or test paper or happily clutching a newly captured slimy thing. Only now the celebration of these events doesn’t take place at the kitchen table or with a kiss or with a trip out for a little treat.
It takes place quietly in my heart, a heart made forever different when that first little guy wormed his way into it. You’re not given a parent’s heart for 18 years. You get to have one forever.