March 2, 2013
He will come back to you; they always do.
When you are pregnant with your first child, all you think about is having the baby. It's 'the baby' this and 'the baby' that, and you don't realise, that pretty soon those triple zero singlets will look ridiculously small, and you will be taking commands from a giant toddler. Likewise, when your baby does become a toddler, you don't fast forward to the infant stage; to the supermarket tantrums or the miraculously heart-felt, yet completely indecipherable chatter... at least not until that stage actually arrives, and then you don't pay much attention to any other stage beyond that.
Each phase of childhood and parenthood has its own unique set of joys and challenges, but we get so consumed by the business of day-to-day living, that we don't stop to imagine, let alone prepare ourselves, for what is coming next. This is all fine and well when the next stage will inevitably involve more of the same highlights and challenges, but when those tiny monsters turn into big monsters and stomp into adolescence, there should be some sort of ticking alarm clock to let you know that the countdown has begun; some inbuilt warning system to prepare you for the almighty fact that pretty soon they will be leaving.
Unless you have been living under a pile of rocks on the moon, you know that the day will eventually arrive, when your baby will reach the threshold of adulthood and journey on across that bridge without you. Even if they don't leave home, they may as well have been kidnapped and reprogrammed by aliens, because in every other possible way, they vanish. But as parents, we aren't even slightly prepared for the biggest change of them all. And no matter how close you tread to that moment, it still manages to creep up behind you, to catch you completely off guard, as though you had been sitting around watching a slow-motion, home-movie that has been sped up near the end, so fast you barely had time to comprehend it.
Maybe this is because we are so entrenched in the challenging task of raising angst ridden, monosyllabic adolescents, that we are too exhausted and beat down to even contemplate another tomorrow. However, I also suspect that it is a protection mechanism, some unconscious denial / avoidance technique, hardwired into all parents to spare us any extra, unnecessary trauma.
Because after 18 years of handing out cuddles and kisses, solving problems and setting boundaries, planning and making meals, being the disciplinarian, the taxi driver and the nurse, helping with homework, stocking the pantry, setting the table, doing the laundry, the dishes, the budget and picking up dirty socks, we aren't able to anticipate a time when we will cease to be really needed, when our role as the hands on caregiver will slowly but surely be dismantled. And perhaps more than anything, we aren't able to anticipate a time when our babies will no longer be around.
Some parents actually look forward to the day when their children finally leave home. I dreaded the moment like it was a cancer diagnosis and I still haven't got used to it some 12 months later. It isn't an easy thing to get used to, not having him around.
After all, I was there when he took his first sweet breath of life, when his tiny alien fingers curled up and found their home in mine. I was there when he crawled backwards first and then forwards, and when he stood upright for the first time with so much pride and excitement in his own accomplishment that his little face turned beetroot red and he actually laughed so hard he cried. I was there when he took his first five steps and stumbled excitedly toward me - looking back at his father after each wobbly step for that extra boost of reassurance.
I remember his first word - mama, his first sentence - what time is it?, and how he used to ask me how concrete was made. I remember our late night quirky chats about the food chain and the universe and evolution, when he first learnt to ride a skateboard and a bike, and how the task of leaving him on his first day at Kindergarten felt like the universe was ripping out my heart. I remember sitting on a tram with him when he suddenly learnt to read, and that first day of primary school, standing at the gate with all the other teary parents, when his pudgy little fingers uncurled to let go of mine.
By high school there was no sign of hand holding, no tears, and he was already big enough to go it alone on the bus, but I still remember him standing nervously in his crisp, new uniform - already half boy, half man, still quietly needing my support and reassurance. All of those moments and so many more are etched forever in my memory, each one marked by it's own unique significance, and each one filling me with so much pride I could cry.
And yet there wasn't a set moment or a special day when he stopped being a little boy, no marked occasion to commemorate the milestone of becoming a man, and yet somehow it happened anyway. And I wasn't prepared for how hard it would hit me, for the emptiness I would feel, and for the private grief that would wash over me when he left, like softly falling rain. Everything that came before was leading into this moment, and yet for some reason I didn't have time to prepare myself, no way to get ready for that deep impossible void that comes from letting go.
It's only been during these last few months that I have stumbled upon the profound realisation that like everything, this is just another transformation, another stage, a metamorphosis of the most surprising kind. My son may not need me in the same way that he did when he was a baby or even an adolescent, but that is because I have done my job and raised a competent young man.
He is an adult now, an inspiring, respectful, humble, gentle young man who stands on his own too feet and makes his own decisions, a good man who makes time for his family and friends. He no longer grunts at me or expects me to do everything for him, and we talk about things the way adults talk about things, with mutual respect, appreciation and understanding. There is no more fighting, yelling, snarling or petty arguing and we actually look forward to seeing one another, to share each others company.
It's taken a while, but my baby has come back to me - just as my friends and family told me that he would. So much change takes place between the ages of 14 and 18, but you really do need to have faith and patience, to trust that they will certainly leave you in the physical, emotional and mental sense, but that they will always come back. Maybe not back into the home, or into the role to which you had become accustomed, but back into your life and your heart, in an even more meaningful way.
There is no doubt my son has grown and matured over the last few months, but I am different now around him too; more accepting and less controlling, more respectful, calm and appreciative. I value the time we spend together because we don't see one another every day and I look forward with great anticipation to the time that we do share. Watching your first born child shape shift into an adult is an incredibly profound experience. But watching them come back to you when you are certain they have gone, well that is the most profound experience of them all.
In 3 weeks my baby is heading overseas for 6 months and it will be the longest time I have ever spent without him. But I don't feel sad, or empty, not anymore. Even though he is leaving, I am able to trust now that he will come back to me, and to understand that even though our relationship is different now, I am still his mother and he is still my baby boy, and he will always need me. His overseas journey is yet another milestone to celebrate, another memory to cherish, and although he no longer needs me to hold his hand, he still needs my quiet support and reassurance, and I will be right there watching when he takes those first few steps, just as I have always been, with so much pride I could cry.