Amy and her sons, Peter and Nick. (Photo: Courtesy Amy Barr)
I celebrated my first official Mother’s Day 24 years ago. When I think back on what I loved most about those early days of parenting, what floats to the surface seems both obvious and surprising. It wasn’t how cute my son Nick was, though both he and Peter, the brother who followed two years later, were ridiculously adorable. It wasn’t how delicious their downy heads smelled or how gummy their smiles were or even how incredible it felt to hold their little bodies in my arms. What moved me most about being a mother was how much my children needed me.
The fact is that as infants they needed me for everything, and without me, they would not survive. What a sense of power I felt. I had not only given life to these miraculous creatures, I was singlehandedly sustaining them with my nourishment and nurturance. No one has needed me like that before or since.
Lots of new moms complain about the infant days, which consist almost exclusively of feedings and diaper changes, carried out in a fugue state. But I loved what I call the hamster stage, before a baby does much of anything but make weird noises and poop. Sure, I was exhausted but I was also exhilarated by the awesome responsibility I now shouldered. My need to be needed was exquisitely in sync with my sons’ endless demands.
They’re still gaining the emotional heft that can only come with life experience. They need me in a back-office kind of way.
As my babies grew into toddlers, they needed me a tad less. They could now soothe themselves and put spoon to mouth to slurp applesauce on their own. But they still wanted to be with me all the time. They’d trail me into the bathroom. They’d beg me to climb into their pint-sized beds and they’d clamp their tiny hands around my wrist if I tried to slip away. I was their buddy of choice, at home and on the playground where I too pushed dump trucks around the sandbox and made headfirst runs down the slide.
During this early part of their lives, my sons could not get enough of me. One day, five-year-old Peter climbed into my bed soon after I’d vacated it. Inhaling deeply, he proclaimed, “Ah, I love the smell of Mommy fresh in the morning!” I was a rock star and they were my groupies.
Those were the days, indeed, but they could not last. Soon after, the paradigm started to shift as friends began to trump parents on the popularity scale. As the boys moved through grade school into high school, I became the third wheel and eventually the spare tire, relegated to the trunk to be pressed into service only in case of trouble. Sure, they loved me. But with every passing day, they needed me less.
I know this is a good thing. I know it’s what is supposed to happen if, as parents, we’ve given our kids the skills and confidence to find their way, to find their peeps. I was proud of Nick’s natural ability to lead. I beamed over Peter’s sense of humor, which earned him many friends. Both boys were smart and kind most of the time. My husband and I had done well. And yet, watching my sons sail out of my harbor, their faces open to the unknown sea, stung a bit.
I’m not exactly sure when the tables turned but at some point it became clear that I wanted to be with my kids more than they want to be with me. Now I grab every opportunity I can to hang out with them. I lure them with promises of a sushi lunch or a new pair of jeans or a load of laundry washed and folded by yours truly. How I long for the days when a little voice would plead, “Just stay with me five more minutes, Mommy.”
These days, I’m hyper-conscious about treading the line between being helpful and being intrusive. If they ask for my assistance or advice, I give it, but rarely do I weigh in uninvited. When Nick’s first job turned out to be a misery, it was painful to watch him carry the weight of his misstep. But I didn’t do a thing other than be there while he figured out how to fix it. Now that Peter is graduating from college, my impulse is to let him handle his job search on his own. But an equally strong impulse tells me it’s a super-competitive world and he needs a hand or at least a motivational kick in the butt from me.
I shall refrain.
At this stage, my boys are like puppies that have reached their full height but are still filling out. They’re still gaining the emotional heft that can only come with life experience. They need me in a back-office kind of way. They like knowing somebody is keeping the family humming along. I am the help desk. I am customer service. Along with my husband, I am also their boulder. We don’t move, even as they do. We stay where they have always found us. We look and sound the same, just a bit grayer. They know we will listen to anything they have to say for as long as they want to talk. We will do favors and help no matter what. We will advocate and facilitate. This is what being a parent becomes.
My kids love me but they no longer need me to survive or even to thrive, a bittersweet fact I will consider with grace and good humor as they hug me this Mother’s Day.