aging, love, mothering, quotations, reflections

on growing up & letting go

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too
Oh, I’m getting older too

—Fleetwood Mac, Landslide

Tonight, my son and I were browsing Netflix for a movie to watch. He wanted to see Die Hard for a third time. I wanted to introduce him to The Usual Suspects. Then he proffered up Oceans Eleven (“the new one, Mom”). Oceans Eleven was available on iTunes but taking forever to download, so we decided to let it download overnight and watch it on our bus trip up to New Hampshire on Friday for my company’s retreat. Die Hard wasn’t in the cards (not for me, anyhow), since I still can’t comprehend how his dad thinks it’s OK for him to watch that but not a handful of other movies less violent… but whatever. It’s his dad’s decision, and I’m not going to interfere. Plus, I’ve seen Die Hard more than enough times for one lifetime. So The Usual Suspects it was.

Except about 15 minutes into snuggling up into bed together and starting the movie, he started to fall asleep. “I’m too comfy cuddling with you,” he said. “It’s putting me to sleep.” Which was equally adorable and heartbreaking, because here we are at a crossroads: At almost-12, my son is at the precipice of puberty (he’s using deodorant now, and isn’t reluctant to inform me that he’s got hairs sprouting in places that didn’t used to have hairs) and isn’t nearly as affectionate as he used to be, but he still has a small tinge of little-boyness in him that I’m desperately hoping hangs on as long as possible. It’s dying, though, and quickly. He’s sarcastic and has a biting wit about him, more saccharine than anything I could have accomplished at his age. I chalk it up to his being raised in an urban environment, which is what I wanted for him: I’m a firm believer that kids who grow up in the city not only are more assertive and confident but also are better able to navigate the world without apologizing for taking up too much space. It took me decades to learn to exist the way my son does at age 11. I’m in awe of him. He’s amazing.

But with that comes the death of the sweet little boy he was… which still is there, in glimmers and glimpses, like when he gives me random hugs or his laugh is still the same as it was when he was five or seven or even two years old. Or when he tries to jaywalk and almost gets run over and I yell at him to watch out, and he gets scared and cries just a little, and I have to give him a hug and tell him it’s OK, it was just a mistake he made thinking the car was going to stop for that yellow light. As weird of an age as it is for me to witness, it’s probably just as weird for him to experience it internally—I remember being confused by the process of growing up. Heck, I’m 41 years old and I’m still perplexed by getting older. Life isn’t easy to figure out and it’s as true for my son now as it was when I read it in a book about mothering my nursing toddler (which was him): life isn’t easy when you’re a little person in a world made for big people. And even though 11-almost-12 is bigger than a toddler, it’s still not a fully-grown person… and it can still be scary when cars don’t stop when you think they will or when you just feel out of sorts for random reasons. (I imagine puberty in general is a lot like perimenopause on the emotional level of things: random odd feelings and crying spurts alternating with the impulse to punch people and scream at strangers for no apparent reason, plus a dramatically increased sex drive.)

Add to all of this the sentiment from 1 Corinthians 13:11 (I’m not religious by any means, but this idea permeates our culture):

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

and I get a bit sad for my son, who no longer wants to browse the kids’ movies on Netflix (though we did go see Guardians of the Galaxy on Friday, though that’s not entirely a kids’ movie) or ride the kids’ rides at Coney Island or eat off of the kids’ menu (frankly, it wouldn’t satisfy his appetite anyhow) or do dozens if not hundreds of “kids” things that he’d have done even six months ago. I don’t know if it’s sadness for him or for me or for both of us. I do know that I saw Boyhood when it came out a few weeks ago, and I cried at the end, not because the kid was growing up (necessarily) but because I could relate so very much to the Patricia Arquette character and her sense of loss, her sense that a very important part of her life was over now that her son was 18 and leaving for college… and that it had all happened so quickly.

Because I’m a noncustodial mother, my time with my sons is quite nearly like a real-life version of Boyhood—chunks of time that jump from one scene to the next: oh, here we are, six months later, in a different hotel room, a different city, a different haircut, one kid has braces, another one has glasses now—and it’s an existence almost no one other than other noncustodial parents understands. How could they? They see their kids every day, so any changes are gradual and barely noticeable. But it’s literally true that every time I see my older son he’s grown an inch, or every time I see my younger son his face has changed shape. They wonder why I want to take so many pictures when we are together; I tell them it’s so I can remember. “Remember what?” they ask. “You,” I say. “You.”

I’ve been thinking lately about what I’d do if I met someone who wanted to have kids, whether I’d consider reversing my tubal ligation or undergoing IVF to have another baby. It would have to be within the next 3-4 years, though, because past that I wouldn’t trust the biology of any of it, no matter what the scientists say. Also, would I want to be one of those mothers whose children are 25 years apart in age? Who knows. Maybe I would. It’s something I’ve been thinking about. For the right person, I might do it. I’d be scared and freaked out and terrified as all get-out about the commitment aspect of things… but I’d be that way about getting married, which would be a prerequisite for a baby for me in the future (not making that mistake again).

But a lot of it, and this is where it gets tricky, is that I feel (and know) that I missed out on so much of what being a mom is all about. I had the first 10 years with my older son, the first 4 with my younger son, but I was absent for a lot of that time. I wasn’t good with staying in one place. I was always running away, trying to find something, leaving the boys with The Philosopher, to whom I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude for being a stable presence in their lives, because without him they would be a mess today. If I could go back and do it all over, I’d do it 1,000% differently. But I can’t, and I feel a tremendous amount of regret about that. Which is the tricky part about me thinking about what I’d do if I met someone who wanted to have a kid with me. Would I be doing it because I wanted to have another kid? Or because I wanted to make someone else happy? Or because I wanted to make up for what I didn’t do in the past? Only one of those three reasons is a valid reason to bring another person into this world, and I’d sure as heck need to figure it out before I went about procreating.

Meanwhile, I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got, which is a little boy (yes, I still consider him little, despite the fact that he’ll be taller than I am within a year, maybe two if I’m lucky, and he’s starting junior high this year) who loves me and is even still willing to be seen hugging me in public (his older brother will barely walk on the same side of the street as I do). I’ve got another whole seven days before he goes home, five of which will be spent in New Hampshire, among rivers and lakes and nature and hiking trails and in the complete absence of internet and cell phone service… and if we’re lucky we’ll have some great times together rather than die from technology withdrawal (fingers crossed). I may have made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I’m a lucky person to be able to have the life I have today despite those missteps. If I had the life I deserved, I’d probably be dead. I’m glad I had the life grace has given me instead. Time does make you bolder. Children do get older. And I do, too. And all of these things are perfectly okay.