I’ve just begun reading a book called “The Ten Year Nap” by Meg Wolitzer. I’m not far enough into it to recommend it or not, but the early pages deal with the main character’s decision to stay at home with her baby rather than return to work as an attorney. I can remember all these feelings soooo well, so I’m reading it slowly, a page at a time, just kind of savoring the nostalgia.
In one passage, though, the mom is talking about that time when the child starts to enter pre-adolescence. It says, “To her surprise, many of the words that she said to her son lately each morning came out in the same slightly irritated voice.” And this struck me, too. It’s something I have experienced, something that seems to be totally beyond my control. I think I understand it a bit, and I can only pray that my children understand it as well.
It is not uncommon in the animal kingdom that around the time that the young are scheduled to go off on their own, the mom who has been so nurturing and protective suddenly starts picking at her babies. I think this is probably nature’s way of convincing the babies to go off on their own. I mean, if mom continued to be loving and nurturing, they will just stay forever, right?
Yeah, I don’t think so. Not if they are anything like people, who respond to a built-in drive towards independence.
So because I am determined to anthropomorphize animals, I have decided that the reason the moms start being a little bit mean to their babies is because they know that their babies are getting ready to leave the nest, and they have to start hardening their hearts just a little bit so that they will be able to survive that separation without their hearts breaking beyond repair.
It is well known that the teenage years can be a trying time for both the parents and the child. Conflicts can arise, and sometimes shocking disrespect that might come from either direction. Part of it has to do with the real-life aspects of the child’s movement towards independence. Children may want to do and be things that the parents don’t want them to do and be. Part of it is that we parents just want to continue to protect them. We want to protect them from physical harm, to protect their very lives as we see it. We want to protect them from heartache that we know they will experience. We don’t want our children to hurt. But the children want to, need to, get out and experience the world. And of course, this can be a simple source of conflict.
But from the perspective of having five children between the ages of 15 and almost 29, I have come to the conclusion that part of it is just the breaking of the bond between mother and child. From the time they were born, we, their mothers, have been the single most important thing in the world to them. They may admit it or not, but it’s true. When they are infants, we hold them. When they are toddlers, we grasp their soft little hands in ours and we hold those little hands through childhood. At adolescence, they look us in the face and remove that hand from ours, and they start moving on, walking steadily down the road into their own lives. However close the relationship, however near or far their physical proximity, this is going to happen.
I know this is true because I grew up once myself! And however much I may have loved my mother, and I did love her very deeply, I know that once I grew up into my own life, she was no longer the most important person in my life. My children, my husband, all generally took precedence. And this is how it should be. This is the way of life. It was something I didn’t even question for the most part.
But it is a painful process, for both of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. The little irritations we create in our relationships create just a little bit of scar tissue, just enough to facilitate the coming separation. Surely if our feelings remained as tender as they were when we began our journey together, we wouldn’t survive this!
I suppose it’s not surprising that my experience is that the children who suffered from the greatest separation anxiety at the start are the ones who become the most difficult during this transition. When my children were babies, I never left them to cry themselves to sleep. Honest. I subscribed to a parenting theory that children were naturally designed to move towards independence, and you could help them best in achieving this by allowing their dependency needs to be met in the beginning. Observing my own children, knowing the circumstances of each of their lives, their personalities and needs as infants and toddlers, and seeing the way they handled their teen and young adult years, I’m going to tell you that my theory proved itself to be correct.
I’m hoping that once we come to a realization of why we and our children suddenly feel irritated with each other, we can stop that pattern, that we can allow our feelings of love and tenderness to remain intact even while letting go.
Eventually, in the best of all possible worlds, these things come full circle. One of my very distinct childhood memories is of my mother taking me out for a milkshake. I don’t remember where we went, and I can’t visualize the surroundings. But I clearly remember telling my mother thank you, and saying, “When I am the mother and you are the child, I will buy you a milkshake.” Why that stuck with me I don’t know. Perhaps it was my mother’s amusement at the time. Maybe it was one of those stories that my mother repeated to friends, and that caused it to stick in my mind. But I did remember it, and actually the day did come when our roles were reversed, as my mother grew older and became ill. I made sure in those last years of her life that I brought her milkshakes, until there came the day that I sat by her side, showering her with love as she left this world, as she had showered me with love when I entered.
There is a children’s book about all this, in case any of you have not read it. It’s called “I Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. I remember the first time I heard it was when it was read aloud at a La Leche League conference. That room was filled with sobbing women, let me tell you! If you haven’t read it, you should.
It’s the circle of life. It’s love.