On The Push And Pull Of Parenting
I got to watch my 8-year-old son grow up a little bit more last weekend through a big picture window in the middle of the Maine woods. It was a rather luxurious camping trip with 6 other families including 8 children ages 5-11, a unique opportunity for our group in that we had the grounds to ourselves including use of the yurts and and the full kitchen in the community dining building. It was rustic in that we had to drive in on long bumpy back roads into the deep woods, then canoe in to the camping grounds yet, we were able to prepare elaborate group meals each day and hang out by the woodstove during the rainy segments of the weekend. It was from inside this building, sipping coffee on a rainy day, I found myself watching my son have the time of his life and feeling that tug of having to let go.
It was a storybook weekend; the adults made one delicious meal after another, the kids played games in the woods. Some adults read books by the wood stove, the kids negotiated choices among themselves. Some adults hiked and went fishing, the kids had moments of hurt feelings and had to muster the courage to apologize to one another. The adults did dishes and cleaned up, the kids told ghost stories and sang scary songs and whispered new swear words they’d learned. The adults slept. The kids slept. The next day we did it all again.
From the big picture window that looked out over the camping property and lake, I watched my 8-year-old thoughtfully choose his hiding spots for games of hide n’ seek and sardines. I watched him battle among the pack for his turn to lead a Mad Libs story. I watched as he was teased for something or other and responded with either calm words or physical measures. I watched as he studied teasing of others, sometimes partaking, other times stepping back. I watched him watch the other kids for social cues to help him decide his next move. I watched all of the kids figuring stuff out, but my attention and thoughts were on my kiddo, fascinated by how he interacts in the world. I don’t get the opportunity to simply watch him very often, so I observed.
For meals, the kids would come into the dining lodge to join the adults. Inside, I watched his eyes roll when I’d check to ask if he was having fun. I watched him choose his seat next to his friends. I felt his reluctance to share a hug or smile with me on the few occasions I asked. I watched him get tired with the non-stop play and negotiations yet keep it together to hang out into the late hours of the evenings making s’mores with everyone around a campfire.
I watched all of this with both a proud and aching heart. I spent much time considering why this was stirring such emotion, such sadness for me. My child was experiencing life on a whole new level this weekend, navigating choices in the safest kind of environment with minimal adult interference. This was a really special opportunity for both of us, so what was my problem?
I’ve always welcomed opportunities that would provide growth and further independence. I want him to learn to get along with confidence in what can often be a complicated world. I want him to be strong and fierce with his beliefs and know his voice is important. But, I guess I wasn’t ready for him to not want me to be a part of it, like, at all. I wasn’t prepared for my 8-year-old to look at look at me like like I was a pest, for him to blatantly display embarrassment when I spoke to him, as though he were a teenager at a party and I suddenly appeared to ask if he had on clean underwear. I wasn’t ready for this extreme pulling away that took place immediately upon arriving.
Much to my chagrin, I have grown painfully attached to my child, his giggle, his eyes, his endless questions, his silly stories, his curls, his smile, his hugs, his company and his presence in my day to day life. Even all of the stuff that wears me down and drives me bananas about being a parent, it is my life and I am so blessed. And, I am so screwed. This is definitely going to be a more challenging aspect of parenting than I could have possibly imagined, the letting go.
Somehow, I had fooled myself into believing as long as I kept my role as a parent in perspective knowing I’m the parent and he’s the kid, my job is to teach him to fly and then send him off into the world, if I could keep that in sight, maybe I could avoid the “empty nest syndrome” I’ve seen others experience. If I could keep my own life rich and full, I would not only be modeling an independent healthy lifestyle for my child but I would also be able to release this little bird one day with grace and joy. Yet, somehow along the way, probably before he was born, possibly even before he was conceived, I fell madly in love with this little person. I genuinely enjoy his company and companionship. He delights me with his perspective on the world and he has taught me so much about myself. I love being his mom, helping guide him, offering that little push and then watching him go. I enjoy watching his confidence grow, his interests develop. I thought I was all set for further steps toward independence. But this, this felt more like a huge leap into a vast body of water where he would surface only long enough to take a quick breath, for me to catch a brief glimpse, then dive back down again. I wasn’t ready to let go of that much so suddenly.
Often when I think about letting go, I think of the troublesome things, letting go of grief, frustration, disappointment, anger, the stuff that weighs us down and keeps our feet stuck in the mud. This weekend reminded me letting go is more than dropping the burdensome stories we carry. Letting go is also about releasing our grip from that which we love and, because we are human, become attached. The fact is, to love deeply is to also open yourself to great heartbreak and loss and that a tough thing to know going in. However, I certainly wouldn’t trade one to avoid the other. I guess this weekend was just a jolt of realization that I am not going to be able to avoid the sting of watching my little one pull away and I better figure out a way to be ok with that.
When we got home from the 3 day woods extravaganza, my kiddo helped me unpack our things. Afterward he politely asked if I might peel and chop up a mango for him. He asked if I’d like some too. We chatted about the weekend over juicy mango slices and triscuits. I later drew him a hot bath and he happily soaked off 3 days worth of dirt and campfire smoke that had built up and then I dug out his favorite pajamas for him to climb into. I made some dinner for us both and I let him sprawl on the couch after we ate to watch one of his favorite tv shows. All was right in the world again.
At the end of the night he sought me out, he was pretty rattled. He told me that he and the kids had been sharing creepy ghost stories and songs over the weekend and now these things were stuck in his head. He asked if I had ever had that happen to me, getting something scary stuck in my head, he asked if he’d ever be able to stop thinking about it. A visiting friend and I sat with him on the floor and talked, we took deep breaths together, we told him about times we’d been scared, then we told more stories, then we started telling funny stories until the 3 of us were laughing. Once he was feeling better, safer, ready to try sleeping again, I asked if he’d like to curl up with mom and dad for the night and for this I was given that smile that reminds me I’m still able to provide total security and happiness for my child.
Falling asleep that night, my 8-year-old tucked under my chin, curled small against my belly I openly acknowledged to myself, this is something I have definitely grown attached to, this human, this love. I thought about how, yes, this growing up thing is going to be challenging and will most certainly bring about many tears but that will never overshadow the pure delight this parenting experience is giving me and I wouldn’t have done a single thing differently.
We simply can’t avoid the pain of loss but we can learn how to strengthen our spirit making it somewhat easier to cope when it happens. We can’t deny ourselves love, joy, laughter, for fear of sadness certain changes and endings will bring. Instead, we need to practice recognizing when those awesome moments are happening and fully embrace them, be in them, love them, then, let them go so the next thing can happen. The tides are always shifting. We have no control over that but we can practice and learn how to support and care for ourselves when these shifts take hold by knowing in our hearts, when things are dark, there will be light again, and by making a commitment to ourselves to bask in the warmth of that light when it shines.