From a Youth to a Young Man…Stepping Away From Mommy

It’s like the break-up of a steady relationship, with the all the grief and withdrawal, but in this case, the split is supposed to happen. It is the most normal occurrence.

When I was single and childless, in my 20s and 30s, I wondered what my purpose in life was. That dilemma was completely solved when I had my child, my only one, and was raising him — I had more purpose than ever and it was so clear. My work was cut out for me, and though it was hard at the time, it gave me so much pleasure. All I had to do was nurture, comfort, feed, and love my baby son. For about 12 years, it was easy to protect my beloved child, give food to the outreached hand, play with my roly-poly toddler, sing to, bathe, hug and kiss his sweet soft skin. I was tired, but it was clearly a great reason to be on this earth.

Yes, I went to my job every day, but I didn’t have to deal with my identity as a writer, an artist, or a musician, a much more nebulous career than rolling up my sleeves and bathing a baby in the bathtub, or wrapping a Band-aid around a finger. I didn’t mind putting everything else on the back burner.

I knew things were going to change as he became an adolescent, but I didn’t know it would feel so abrupt; his needing me less, his wanting independence. In my case, it felt like a year of being elbowed in the gut as I lost my sense of worth. It started when he was about 12 ½ when his voice began to get deeper. I had to smile as I watched my son approach puberty, become tall and strapping until he towered over me. He was becoming a man with such ease, and I’m relieved that he is so confident, doing well at middle-school, with a little gang of friends. When I was an adolescent, on the other hand, I was insecure, shaky with my every move, and still needed my mom a lot. I guess the more love I put in as he was growing, the more secure he would become. I should be and am so grateful that I don’t have a teenager with emotional problems, a drug habit, is disrespectful or acts out. The most that happens is he rolls his eyes, and as my over-50 brain gets more fuzzy, his is sharpened like a blade; he gets the answers and knows the right words with lightning speed.

His father didn’t seem to be affected by this shift in the relationship of parent to son (they have a close relationship with its own dynamics), but I was floored. Being a boy, I guess he felt he couldn’t show weakness, so he stopped reaching out to me, asking me things, wondering out loud. He used to worship his mommy. Looking up at me, arms out to me, calling to me. I would pick him up and sing him the Yiddish lullaby my great-grandma used to sing, kissing his tears. I was Queen Mommy and felt radiant, as everyone around me understood and acknowledged my very important purpose in life. All powerful, all knowing, all loving. Now, I feel like a buffoon, as he has seen the real me with all my faults, fears, and clinginess. One day, far in the future, he may realize that there was strength in his mother’s vulnerability. I can’t fake omnipotence anymore.

When he was a toddler, I got in the bathtub with him, and we played pirates or shark, and made a food-coloring blue ocean. I was there when he took his first steps, rode a bike without training wheels. I actually kept a journal of all his milestones, including the first time he noticed the moon.

I have saved all the Mother’s Day cards he made in elementary school, with the adorable stick figures of his mommy that he drew. He always made me with all my hair swept over to one side, which I don’t have in real life, yet I love this depiction, because it does look like me.

His father has his own more reserved way of showing affection, but I taught my son the joy of cuddling and snuggling. It’s in him now, whether dormant or in use. He is an affectionate person. He is a good hugger (and is capable of crushing me now).

I’m starting to get a little bit accustomed to the fact that he’s a young man and that I can’t just hug and kiss him as much as I want to. I’m lucky with how much he does let me, but he’s supposed to push me away (and he does it so gently — God, he could devastate me if he wanted to.) He gently said, “too much, Mom,” and I got it, and backed off, so proud of myself for not lingering. His job, as the whole universe knows, from the moment he was born, is to systematically move farther away from his parents until he is successfully living on his own. There is no rule that says he has to stay in the same city, state, country, continent, or planet as us.

I have to keep telling myself, he’s only 13. He looks 17 because of his height and girth, so people treat him as such. But this bigger body is still very new to him.

I loved to comfort him; he was scared of fireworks and would run indoors, run to his mommy or papa. I would put socks on his kicking feet, blowing heat into them on a cold day, as my mother used to. I would read him his Richard Scarry books over and over, as it was comforting for him to see the same pages and pictures every day.

I showed him how to be silly, how to make funny voices and make his stuffed animals speak. I taught him about nature and stars and the seasons and eclipses. Now, he’s like a walking Google, extremely bright, and you can’t teach him anything. I start to, but he says, “I knew that,” or “you already told me that, Mom.”

Things will keep transforming, and maybe he’ll even need me again in a different way one day. But we sure raised a self-assured guy. He makes statements with such conviction, even if they’re not true, that everyone around him believes them as scientific fact. Or maybe it’s just me believing it.

Now, my purpose in life feels unclear. I’m not needed in an overt way by my son, who presently takes city buses, goes and buys his own pizzas from Domino’s with his own money. He still needs us. I’m sure he feels safe knowing mom and dad are in the next room. We still haven’t left him home alone too long in the evening. When he goes on an overnight with his grandma, he always calls us to say goodnight. My purpose will emerge. But my purpose is not going to be linked to my son in the way it had.

When he was 1 or 2, we used to lie on our backs and I’d hold a mirror up, and he was fascinated with our faces. On the bed, we’d play horsie; he’d ride on my back until the horse got tired and fell over, as he fell onto the soft pillows, and we’d laugh. We were always close, skin to skin.

Now instead of snuggling before he goes to sleep, I give him a back massage, which he likes and says he needs. It’s a great excuse to be near him. His shoulders are getting broader and his feet hang over the end of the bed.

Now, I have my 2 cats to love unabashedly, pouring on the treacle. They don’t care if I say I love them a hundred times in a row. And if they walk away, I’m not hurt at all.

I still look forward to seeing him when I come home from a long day at work. I round the corner of his bedroom door, and there he is at his computer as always. About half the time, he reaches up his arms to me, but I always hug and kiss him hello, and I drink it in and smell his scent.

He still calls me “Mommy,” with his deep voice. It’s so cute.

We were taking a neighborhood walk when he was about 5 and we had just finished reading Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur. A big gray tree trunk had grown horizontally, and we pretended that we were walking on the dinosaur’s neck. It felt real, as I was experiencing it through his eyes. We went back many times to walk on the dinosaur.

Someone put it into his head that to say “I love you” to your mother was not something an older boy does. (When he was little, he used to say it.) My father never had a problem saying those words to me, and neither do I. But I know he loves me. I know it as well as I know my own bones and plasma. The memory of our intimacy is lodged in every cell of his being.

Then there are the rare and wonderful days where he needs me to fill my mommy shoes. He recently graduated from 8th grade and the next stop is high school. We walked to the bank where he has a small savings account from relatives’ gifts starting from his birth. Entering the wood-paneled bank is introducing a foreign world for him, a familiar world for me. He was quiet and respectful, not his usual chatty self. I told him where to sign the back of his checks from his grandpa and aunt. He needs to practice his signature, which he has rarely had to write. He walked out with $80 in his pocket, a huge amount for him. What a satisfying 20 minutes of my life. I got to guide him and show him the way, as before.

And there are still those blissed-out days where we get to take a nap, side by side, something we’ve done ever since he was an infant. The chance that we both happen to be sleepy at the same time. It is the deepest, most satisfying sleep for me because I know where he is, and I know he’s safe. And I think he gets something out of it too.

I love my parents unconditionally, no matter how neurotic they’ve been, and he loves me this way too. It’s all in there. He doesn’t express it verbally or in writing. But when he hugs me hello and goodbye, and even sometimes in between, it is genuine, it is intense, it is love. I am his mommy.