July 4th for Moms: What I Learned About Letting Go This Independence Day
July 4th is almost over. The little guys are jumping on the trampoline outside while my husband cooks dinner. I can hear sports radio from his phone and the sizzling of swordfish. My daughter is reading upstairs. My older son is at sleep-away camp. It’s a moment of rare calm in the house, which I feel I completely deserved given that I was basically running naked through my beach club a few hours ago.
Turns out, today was the day my older daughter was ready to swim in the ocean all by herself. Turns out, I was the one not ready for that. As I played in the frothy surf with my little guys, watching them run back towards the beach, squealing with laughter over and over again, my older daughter joined us.
“Can I go out by myself, Mama?” She asked.
“Hold on,” I said. “I’ll come in a minute.”
She waded farther and farther out. An old girlfriend of mine was out there with her three kids and reached her hand out to my daughter.
“I can take her!” She yelled back to me.
I watched as my friend helped, but I could barely contain my own anxiety. What if? What if something happened out there? What if I couldn’t reach her in time? I still flash back often to the time my mom and baby brother almost drowned after being hit by an unexpected, giant wave while I watched helpless from the beach as a young child. The ocean has scared me ever since.
I started to take off my cover-up.
“Stay here, Mom!” My little one begged.
“Don’t go in!” The other one added.
It was one of those moments. They all needed me to be in different places at the same time. No substitutes would do. As a mom of four, I’m used to those moments but they don’t get any easier. I debated: do I risk the massive, imminent tantrum I could feel brewing in the little guys, or risk my older daughter in the waves without me?
The peaks of the ocean were getting higher and higher. My daughter had floated away from my friend and was off by herself to the right down the beach, treading water, waving at me to come in.
I couldn’t risk it. I left the little guys on the beach with our babysitter. I could hear them screaming as I ran towards the water.
“No!!!!’ They yelled.
I couldn’t look back. I ran into the freezing cold water — and I mean, freezing! — across the rough, ragged sea floor until I reached my daughter, who held out her hand to me.
“Thank you, Mama,” she yelled over the roaring sea.
“When the big waves come, jump up, okay?” I yelled to her.
“Jump! Go high! Kick up! Ride over them!”
The big first wave came towards us. We held hands. It looked like it was about to crash right on top of us like we were in some gnarly surfer movie. My heart was pounding.
“Kick! Jump!” I screamed, thrashing my own legs as fast as I could, clinging to my daughter’s hand as we rode up to the top of the wave together, then sank back down again once it passed.
I looked over at my daughter right then. She was beaming.
“I did it, Mama!! I’m doing it!!!”
After a few more waves, she let go of my hand.
She was fine. I wanted to reach out and get her hand back. Make sure she was safe. Did I need her hand more than she needed mine?
Finally, we got out of the water. She was triumphant, proudly telling anyone who would listen that she had done it. She’d gone swimming in the ocean! Meanwhile, I was now carrying both little ones, covered in sand, across the beach and then across the whole beach club, trying to get them into the club’s showers. They were still sobbing from my having left them to go swim with their sister. At this point, my bathing suit was askew and, obviously, soaking wet. I didn’t have a towel. I had sand in every conceivable part of me, my feet scratched from the ocean floor.
In this luminous state, I had to weave my way through the red and blue table-clothed rounds of smartly dressed families still eating their BBQ buffet lunch, trying to ignore the looks I felt on my body.
“I’m too old for this,” I thought.
I’d been too “in it” on the beach to be self-conscious, but next to the designer cover-ups, my discontinued J. Crew tank bathing suit from before half my pregnancies wasn’t covering up enough of me.
Once I made it to the ladies’ room, I washed both of my little ones in the shower while my older daughter, still happy, was now focused on where she’d lost her shoes. I kept darting in and out, trying to dry off the kids. While clutching the first clean child and trying to get him dressed, I ran into two moms I knew socially from the city.
It took a moment for them to recognize me.
“Hi!” I said, clutching a naked child, dripping wet. I tried to convey a look that said: “I know I look like s — t, but it’s been one heck of an afternoon.”
They smiled in sympathy.
“Um, I think you still have shampoo or something in your hair,” one of them said, perched atop her chic wedge heels.
“I haven’t even dealt with myself,” I responded. “But I’m sure I do.”
I caught a glance of myself in the mirror. Holy crap. I looked like Martha Washington.
Finally, the kids and I emerged, showered, dressed, hair almost brushed. I could walk back somewhat normally through the sea of fancy tables. My friend from the ocean passed by and just kissed me on the cheek. We didn’t even need to speak. She got it.
We did have to rush home, though, to have our long-awaited call with my son at sleep-away camp. He was great! So happy. So grown up. So amazing. I’d been craving the sound of his voice. Dreaming about him. Missing him so much my chest hurt. After we hung up, I snuck upstairs to get the little kids their jammies and burst into tears.
This was the whole point of being a mother: raising kids who would be okay out on their own. And I was doing that! So then why did it hurt so much?
Later, as I stood washing all the pots, pans, tongs and plates from the delicious meal my husband cooked, I looked out the kitchen window at the two little ones jumping on the trampoline in the setting sun. I could sense their freedom. Jumping by themselves. Laughing. Playing. Learning. Living.
I felt a twang of hard-won independence myself. I had one of those moments where I was watching myself from the outside, assessing the events of the day. I was taking care of my house, scrubbing paint stains out of the kids’ pajamas, finishing a load of darks, unloading and reloading the dishwasher, feeding the kids, cleaning the kids, organizing, cooking, straightening up, paying bills, divorced, remarried. Independent.
I was in charge. Yet I was the one who had to let go. I wasn’t sure I was ready.