I am standing in line at my favorite ice cream shop, it’s hot outside. This used to be a place I’d take my son on a special occasion and it still is from time to time, but today I’m alone, I’ve walked too many dogs, I’m a dog-walker, and I need to cool down. Scanning the counter people tossing scoops and smashing ingredients, I look in front of me to see a baby girl sitting on her mama’s hip. She is all chunk with michelin man legs, five creases deep and shiny copper curls. I can almost smell the sweet and sour of spilled milk in those tiny little crevices. I want to reach out and squeeze her chubby legs, smiling at her mom. A moment later, before I can catch the words coming out of my mouth, I tell her how I used to carry my own son on my hip, the exact same way she’s holding hers. But, she isn’t interested, smiling blankly and looking away, not engaging. My son, Jake, is 13 now, almost 14. I can still get hugs, snuggles and a sneaky hand-hold here and there but the odds of him coming with me everywhere, everyday, every moment of my life, is not happening. Here is this new mom, she is in the middle of it, sleep deprivation and trying to make all the right decisions. Her child less often makes her mad and more simply exhausts her. They are helpless at that age newborn to five, mother and child. This is the time when a new mom is hashing out all the guidelines for the type of mother she will be. She has read the innumerable books on how to do everything but it’s go time now, this is not a rehearsal. Circumcisions, vaccinations, breastfeeding and naps, discipline, religion, daycare, work or stay at home, and which brand is best? Meanwhile everyone is offering their opinions and personal experiences! This woman just wants to watch her little girl enjoy a spoonful of ice cream and maybe sit for a bit and zone out.
As my son and I grow older, I see these new parents out and about, their kids melting down at a restaurant or running through the aisles of a grocery store. My son never comes with me to the store anymore so often I am alone, smiling as the parents are apologetic or simply annoyed. I have this deep desire to raise my mama freak flag and say, “I’m one of you, you are not alone, and it gets better. You’ll miss these days, smile, laugh and rush to scoop that baby into your arms, embrace the moment”. Those are the words I’m saying when I smile, in my head.
In the early days of Jake, I didn’t have many friends who had kids. It was just Jake and I, my husband worked as a chef and was gone most of the day. I was a kitchen-widow. I defended my decisions on co-sleeping, on-demand breastfeeding and letting Jake take his time with each step whether it was walking, talking or potty-training. I laughed when he kept saying “duck”, louder and louder at a restaurant, only it wasn’t Duck. He couldn’t say D’s so he said it with an F, proudly. Those years, I have never known such exhaustion, joy and heartache.
Kindergarten is when I found my people, my community, my parental demographic. A few parents had older children, those I kept close, their invaluable knowledge meant to be weighed and willingly ignored if necessary. Most had smaller children too, a few years younger than my own son. This was a source of heartbreak for me, as I had lost Sophia to stillbirth when Jake was three and it was difficult to not imagine her own spirit in each little girl, skipping along behind the boys, tugging at the moms to leave soon.
The after-school pickups were our savored moments of the day, huddled together at the playground, conversation was mostly about who we were, desperate for socializing with women of our own age, living the same life but different. We would bull-shit about wine, past lovers, where and how we grew up, our awful parents and our amazing parents and what we did for money. We bitched about our husbands or shared good stories, encouraged each other to try new jobs, workouts, diets or shoes. Slowly friendships developed. We sorted out… the moms who worked “real jobs” while others free-lanced. Some owned businesses, while others went to school. We all parented differently and the same.
Now days we fret about our children and the decisions together, in intimate facebook groups or IM’s, all with the same intensity of a new mom. Will letting him drop band mean he won’t have a social group to keep him out of trouble, or will forcing him to stay in make him hate me and lead to smoking weed? Do I care, should I care? Will he lose focus if he drops out of the art strand? Is deciding to be a creative writer going to lead to a life of alcoholism? Another mom worries about her son and his girlfriend, how far have they gone. One boy has low grades, he isn’t trying hard enough, the other has high grades but he is stressed. As we see the final stretch span out before us, each decision makes the parental tight-rope ever more precarious. Our children come home to us now, no more after-school gatherings, but we have found other ways to communicate. We know they still love us, need us, but they are, in their slow and inevitable way, growing their wings which will be necessary for them to fly away. These wings are very difficult things for them to grow and all that effort comes with a price. Our sweet little michelin man babies are now long and lean, grumpy and sullen, lazy, depressed, and even detached. They sleep all day, eat all our food, disrespect us and reach out and hug us. They seek us out late in the evening for a quick snuggle and a quiet talk. Making decisions as a parent is all so confusing and worrisome because we know that all that pain, strife, aggravation and effort comes with an inevitable ending, adulthood. They will leave and from what I have heard, it’s really hard, no matter how mean they can be.
Back at the ice cream shop I release the compulsion to engage with that young, fresh mom with all those years ahead of her. I remind myself to smile and know, these new moms will seek us out when they are ready. When they have gotten comfortable in their mom identity. When they have cast their suit of armor and made an imprint that will stick. My mind turns, 180 degrees and searches out a mother of an adult child, 22, 26, 30 years old. This woman patiently nods and understandingly laughs with those well-earned creases around her eyes that say she has survived the pain. Does she miss them, yes? Will I survive, yes and I will be lonely and I will be proud and he will come back around and it will be fun because we will be adults and friends. Relax and enjoy the moment. These upcoming high school years, I will pace myself. I learn to smile inwardly when I see that young mom with the chubby-cheeked toddler screaming because she wants a piece of candy or another toy. I have been there and I didn’t want to chat either. I enjoy my quiet times, refilling my cup of tolerance for the patience it will take to persevere through another evening of difficult algebra homework of which I cannot help, 7am sectionals for band, and not knowing most of the people he interacts with at school. I enjoy the chatter and hugs that I do still get from him, and I order him a cup of ice cream, dutch chocolate, his favorite and bring it home, slipping it into the freezer, because he’s still asleep, it’s 2pm and he will be hungry when he wakes up.