The Bittersweet Wonder of Watching Your Kids Become More Independent
By Alexis Gantsoudes
Almost daily, when a blurry moment of parenting kids who are in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades subsides into a fleeting pause, I am struck with a sense of wonder.
This wonder is different from the universal kind I felt when watching each of my babies do something for the first time or discover something about themselves or the world around them; it is the kind you might feel in a crowded public place when you’ve lost your people--in the world before you could use a cellphone to find them. This sneaky and persistent feeling comes from finding myself undeniably and squarely in the middle of the the first phase of parenting, meaning the phase where the kids live at home, under our wings and under our roofs.
This summer, I watched from my car at a stoplight as a mom waiting at the edge of the crosswalk with her child kneeled to tie a sweatshirt around her waist. I suddenly realized that none of my children needs me to do that sort of thing for them anymore--the sort of thing that once filled up my entire day: putting on shoes, cutting up fruit, washing hair, or making a lunch. I find myself being wistful for my preschool-aged buddies who accompanied me on the sometimes drab daily tasks of life. Waiting in line at the post office with a toddler can be exhausting, but it also brings with it the possibility of the unexpected. Sweet moments are everywhere and always possible when you’re literally attached to someone who still inhabits his own little world.
I will be the first to admit as someone who was at home with my kids while my husband traveled endlessly and family lived airplane flights away, that I regularly fantasized about reclaiming my independence for just the briefest moments when my children were younger. Going for a run without a double stroller--liberating! Driving to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription without buckling three car seats--as indulgent as a massage! Doing any daily task that moms do in an endless cycle without strategizing about food, sleep, thwarting temptations and meltdowns seemed a milestone that was far away and the stuff of dreams to my tired, weary body.
But somewhere between waiting for my youngest to drop his nap so we could be more footloose as a family and living every day in the details, I lost track of time. While the kids seem to need me as much as ever, they need me more intensely and for fewer minutes a day. This has created an “on-call” role that I never imagined when I thought of being a parent and has disrupted my sense of self as a mother. The busyness that so completely overfilled my world with younger children comes now in unpredictable fits and starts, and in many ways, I feel as new to the job as I did when my firstborn was an infant.
It is not my personality to just let go--to just experience things without analyzing them or trying to understand their role in a greater path that I am trying to follow. However, during those moments of wonder that bubble to the surface so often, I feel the bittersweet call to take a step back, and to allow my presence to be felt more in my kids’ minds as they make a decision than in my deeds. This is all quiet, mental work, but it requires a deceptive amount of effort, awareness and self-restraint. It also requires the bittersweet acknowledgement of another unanticipated parental shift.
My youngest, who is prone to worry, preferred to be physically close to me as a preschooler and in his early elementary years. When I was encouraging him to venture from my side to do what he wished without me, such as get a drink from the water fountain across a waiting room, I would tell him that we were connected by a stretchy-string--that he could go and get the drink while still being connected to me. My world now feels like a web of endless stretchy-strings. As each of my children ventures towards something new--walking to town with a friend, walking alone around the corner to play soccer with neighborhood kids, staying up late at a friend’s house for a sleepover--I feel the same cocktail of pride, worry, and love I felt as I sent my son to the water fountain. Just as much, though, I feel the need to accept my ever-shifting role and perhaps even celebrate the way in which mothering reinvents us over and over again.