Five: a study in perspective

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From the time my son could talk, the first word out of his mouth every morning was Mommy. When he was two, he called it from his bed. He was little then, and needed me to fetch him; he couldn’t conceive of leaving his bed alone. Always, he insisted on taking my hand as we crossed the threshold from his room to the rest of the house. As he grew older, he gained the confidence to rise on his own, but still he’d find me in the kitchen and call my name—Mommy!—his arms stretched wide for a hug. I recognized that such greetings wouldn’t continue forever, and I wondered when they’d end.

My son is five now and those greetings have ended. These days, he walks into the kitchen rubbing his eyes. He cocks his head and smiles at me, a little sheepishly. I open my arms, and he walks into them. He doesn’t invoke my name. I rub his head. I bend over and smell his hair: shampoo and sweat.

My son has entered the stage where whole days can pass, and I don’t see much of him. There are mornings where I leave for work just after he has woken. I may pick him up from preschool at 5:30, his baby brother in tow, and listen to him chatter for an hour as we make and eat dinner. That hour of half-attention is sometimes all I have before the baby melts down and I attend to his bedtime while my partner takes care of the rest. And then, on the weekends, people now offer to take him from me. He gets invited for afternoons at the park, trips to the movies, sleepovers. I send him off on these adventures, and entertain fears about him falling down a staircase or slipping on a rock. Clearly my worry is disproportionate; it is my mind’s sneaky way of grieving his independence.

On the day my son was born, when the nurse placed his naked body on my chest, I was amazed by how firm and warm and actual he felt. I had imagined something squishy and barely human, not this long, fully-formed person. As he began to grow, I recalled that moment every time I took him out of the bath. I’d hold him against me and look at us in the mirror, the back of his long body, his skin still warm from the water, and connect it in my mind to the body I held that first day.

When I do that now, the connection feels distant. My son’s legs dangle; they reach for the floor. It all makes sense, I suppose. My son once lived inside of me, and then, once he was born, he depended on my milk and the warmth of my body for survival. As he grew older he ate more and nursed less, until finally he drank water from the tap or juice from the fridge. So it’s right that his limbs should reach beyond me now. But I hadn’t counted on these feelings, not so early anyway. I thought I had until puberty at least to maintain my status as the Center of his World. But already, after just five years of raising him, I feel acutely that he will leave me again and again in ways that I haven’t yet accounted for.

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31 comments

  1. This makes me incredibly sad. Even though my little guy ( at 19mths) is a holy terror, I whisper to him every day to please stop growing! The gentle calling for his Momma is a sound that has been imprinted in my heart. Your post reminds me to take full advantage of this short window with him. …in between head butts to the eye ball and kicking tantrums in public of course 🙂

    1. I hear you. My baby is 14 months–definitely in the head-butting phase! I’m able to feel more bittersweet about the five-year-old because he’s the one I get a break from.

    1. Yeah. This morning he complained that I was “carrying him too hard.” I didn’t know how to explain that he’s just too big for it to be comfortable for either of us.

  2. Wow. If you are going to write so poignantly and insightfully about motherhood, please warn me. That way, I can distract the elephant that is now sitting on my chest hoping to force water out of my eyes.
    I too conjured up my first experiences of newborn Collin as I held him each day. I too noticed when holding him gradually became ungainly, and Collin’s legs were undeniably dangling. I’ve never heard anyone else articulate what must be a very common mental ritual.
    Your prediction at the end is dead on. Not a week goes by where I don’t grieve, at least a little, and sometimes a lot, for the end of an era. It can be the moment I realize I will never again see Collin’s once soft neck without an Adam’s apple poking out, nor hear him speak in a voice that isn’t deep enough to be confused with his Dad’s from a distance. Sometimes I’m forced to notice that a shared routine has vanished because he’s staying up later than I can. There have been so many eras in Collin’s life that only occur to me when they end. And then I’m stuck with this elephant that is stil on my chest.

    1. I so clearly remember when I first met baby Collin. That doesn’t seem like very long ago. More evidence that Harlan will be in high school before I know it.

      1. I agree with the other writer that you are still the center of Harlan’s world. I know it from my visit. There were times when I had the skills to assist Harlan, but I lacked your identity.
        The clues revealing my importance to Collin continue to change, but I take comfort in their subtle existence. I can’t even think about the countdown to college, which has already begun.

  3. Just wait till he’s 20 and you see a photo of ya’ll together and you think. He’s a man. I’m a mom to a man. Yesterday, he was standing there holding up five fingers and now he could be a dad himself. This is a beautiful post — but mother only gets better, and more complex.

    1. I can picture it. I have a brother who’s 7 years younger than me. He’s a man now of course, but I remember him as a baby, and I always mix up his name with my son’s.

      1. I intermittently called Collin ‘Will’ that first year. (I know I’m replying too much, but your essay touched an exposed nerve. I’ll shut my pie hole now.)

  4. I have a five year old, too. Maybe yours is going through an independent phase? My other 5 year old was like this, then he turned six.. and it was back to being mama. AND he wanted me to carry him. He’s about as tall as me! lol

  5. Wow. Thank you for this. We watched some videos tonight of my now-five-year-old son when he was two. I love his five-year-old self, but simultaneously desperately miss the chubby snuggly lisping two-year-old.
    And hey, I also mix up my son’s name with my younger brother’s!

  6. “So it’s right that his limbs should reach beyond me now.” I loved this line–visual and poetic–and captures the whole post. I can relate to this post, as a reader/parent; there’s always the push/pull of parenting, of kids wanting us near and wanting us to let go.

  7. oh my heart. I have a 4 yo who means everything to me… but every so often, I see glimpses into what you describe. I like that she’s growing and evolving into this absolutely incredible human being, but man, it’s hard letting go of being *her* everything.

  8. This really resonated with me. My daughter just turned 6. And today she left the house at 8.15a and I won’t see her again until 6p. We’ll have dinner together and but then it’ll be a rush of bedtime, homework, chores, and getting ready for the next day. It’s like, “How did this happen?! You’re this person with your own life instead of my baby!” I want her to be independent, but I miss her, too.

  9. This conversation is really beautiful. I’m in love with you mothers, your generosity and tenderness and truthfulness.

    I somehow skipped all the babyhood/little-child-bodies-growing-into- independence steps. Instead I acquired teenaged boys in a bunch when I fell in love with a grownup father. They had mothers; I wasn’t their mother; They called me by my first name, and now their children do too.
    But they lived with me, and as their dad’s girlfriend I became interesting to them in a couple of ways. I had a little bit of authority because we were in my house. More importantly, I was the one who was assigned the magic someone has to do for adolescents: noticing and valuing their deepening sexual viability while maintaining complete sexual safety between us. Tenderness, kindness, seriousness, humor, patience, hilarity, irritation, disagreement, adding up to safety. It helped me to hear about how startling it was for other teenagers’ physiological parents to negotiate their way through this stuff. For awhile I thought it was just me. Never! It happens for every parent or close grownup.

    Those guys’ father died six years ago, and a lot of the grief and surprise you mothers are putting into words sounds exactly like the grieving I’ve had to negotiate. There seems (to me) to be a parallel between watching someone grow into viability, at one end of life, and waving goodbye to someone whose time is up at the other end of life. Change is stunning when you love every version of any growing someone so hard.

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Susan. I love learning more about you in particular, and also about the experience of raising boys growing into me–something that I will certainly be schooled in over the next two decades.
      “Change is stunning when you love every version of any growing someone so hard.” I often think about the past versions of my sons and how I will never have them again, and wonder why that’s not sadder than it is. They are brand new people every few years, but something essential remains.

      1. Yes, and then you can tell them stories about When They Were Little. They like that, as I’m sure you know.

  10. Beautifully written post.
    I’ve been thinking exactly these thoughts of late. It’s the six-year-old giving me the silent treatment or the five-year olds telling me I’m mean (and maybe even when I am mean.) Even the three-year old is getting a bit over me (although she will NOT walk down the stairs in the morning. Must be carried. I fear that may be more of a princess thing.) At any rate, today I was feeling bizarrely ill so I bizarrely left them with my other half and went off to the doctor’s office. When I returned a few hours later they all came wandering up, tentatively patting my hand, rubbing my hair, draping across my legs, arm over my shoulder. They were like a blanket of children. There’s hope then… maybe now we’ll save showing that umbilical connection for when they think they really, really need us (or us them.)
    (Oh, there may be a blog post in that! Thank you for the inspiration!!)

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