One Day You’ll Put Them Down
As I watch the children in our ’hood overtake us in height and heft, I often think of Milo of Croton. It amused my first baby and me to no end when I’d carry her over my head and pretend to climb a mountain, both of us collapsing in giggles at the end of it. This was repeated with the other children, though the youngest seemed to quickly grow too heavy and unwieldy for overhead-running-with. Or maybe, I was just 10 years older.
Now, I’m 15 years older. And after counting firsts for as many years, my eldest is in her last year in school and we have just finished our last School Summer Vacation à Trois. I know the year will pass by in a frenzied hurry of projects and preparation for the big exam and I find myself lingering over things that used to speed past on the daily conveyor belt. ”Next year, one less uniform to launder, one less lunch to pack…”
I exclaim aloud at the sudden realization that I cannot pinpoint when I stopped braiding her hair for school. Five years ago? “I’m five!” my youngest says, holding his palm out, fingers outstretched. I look at him, confused by the coincidence, worrying I was more overwhelmed by his arrival than I remember. But then my eldest says, “No, more like eight years ago.”
I know, in theory, that Coming of Age is not one momentous unfurling of wings, but a series of quotidian independences. Yet I had no idea they would come so surreptitiously. How stark is the memory of the brand new baby and the shiny knife it plunged into the heart of your spontaneity; that bawling in the middle of your favourite TV show; that loaded diaper right after the hors d’oeuvres at lunch. Well, pardon me for imagining the burdens, chores and impingements would lift with as much fanfare.
And then I realized there’s a reason I didn’t notice. On the morning of her 15th birthday, my eldest woke up at dawn, as she has been doing for the last year, made herself a cup of tea and finished revising an assessment while the rest of the household slept. When I woke, she helped me with the laundry and then she dressed up for a full day of school.
“Will you bunk tuitions this evening?” I grin at her. “It’s your birthday!”
“No, I better go. We have an assessment next week.”
“Sure, make me look like the slacker,” I say.
She giggles and leaves. Then I devote the time saved on morning chores to flipping through albums full of pictures of her as a baby and weeping my heart out.
We’re told to encourage independence in our children from the time they’re quite little – fall asleep on their own, put away their own toys, eat on their own, dress themselves up. We keep at it, wondering if we are succeeding, dreaming of a time when they will need us just a little less, and years pass.
Then one day you realize that some of the balls you dropped in that frantic juggle are now being picked up by a calm teen (or preteen, or even, on some days, Finally5). Any day now, they will take those balls and run with them.
I know, I know. Children evolve past a physical reliance on you and graduate to an emotional reliance. My husband snorts and reminds me, too, of the barrel of financial reliance we’re still looking down.
So why does it feel so bad? Is it because after having to keep cranking up the pace on the Tetris of family functioning – arrange the blocks, shift, spin, line them up until they disappear, then prepare for more blocks – this new loss of resistance seems to make the wheels turn faster? The blocks are lining up and disappearing by themselves, now, as we speed toward the last lunchbox, the last uniform, the last textbooks covered in brown paper…
The hardest wrestling is with the inevitable letting-go of motherhood’s visceral realities. I have to raise my eyes to talk to my eldest; my second daughter’s feet are already too big for my boots, literally (and on some days metaphorically); and Finally5 will soon be 6.
I feel the passage of time and already I seem to shrink within my house. I throw my arms around my 15-year-old, and it is like hugging a young tree. I hoist the 11-year-old onto my lap where, for a second, we pretend she still fits comfortably. I worry I will impede my youngest’s emotional development because I have to keep reminding myself not to treat him like a baby.
My last baby.
I hear the familiar complaints of mothers with younger children, laments about how needy their little ones are, and I realize I’m now on the other side. I’m the cliché older mom reminding them of how quickly these years go by: the physical, touchy, skin-on-skin, literally-hands-on years.
So, rough house with them while you still can. Have long cuddles and baths and family sleepovers in mummy and daddy’s room. You can ignore the people who say, “Let them walk; let them stand.” Pick them up and twirl them around. Carry them piggyback often.
We are not Milo of Croton getting stronger as his calf grows into a bull. One day, you will put your children down and never pick them up again.