If you are a mom, I’m certain you remember this moment:
The very instant your baby is placed in your arms—after a C-section, or delivery, or from a birth mother’s arms. However you got that baby—that moment.
When you first see that baby’s face, and you look at it—you look at it for the very first time, and you realize this is a new person. An entirely new person, just beginning his life.
And you want to do everything right. You know you will do everything right. You promise you will.
You’ll never get mad. You’ll never mess up. You’ll teach him everything he needs to know. You’ll help him avoid heartache. No heartache will happen on your watch.
And there are so few. So few moments, or days, or maybe even a week, until you mess up. You love him more than anything, but still you mess up.
Heartache comes no matter what you do.
I’ve been thinking about that promise I made, four times, to each of my babies. How it was an impossible promise, even though I made it with all of my heart. Especially, this week, that moment I had with Jake.
Every baby arrives with his or her own personality. You can sense it when you’re pregnant but once the baby arrives, it seems to beam out of their skin. It’s unique to each baby and is, I think, their most essential, truest self.
Jake had this specific…sweetness. Or joy. Or kindness. A goodness. I never did find the exact word for it, but oh my, it was…delicious. As he grew he showed me more and more of it, the kindness, the sweetness.
And I worried. I knew—that life would not let him keep it.
Even though I promised to never mess up. To do everything right and to be the perfect mom and to spare him every heartache. To make it so he could keep a hold of that quality he had.
But slowly, slowly, it slipped away, his essential Jakey-ness.
Actually, I don’t think it slipped away. I think it just got buried. Partly it had to be buried, because life and the world does not value kindness or sweetness or joy. Especially not in boys. The world wants toughness. It wants hardness, it wants fists and muscles and strong jaws.
He still has it, but he keeps it hidden.
Even with me.
Except, every once in a while. Every so often, it slips. The manly façade, and I see his true self, still there. He’s still sweet, and kind, and gentle.
I saw it last week, when he and I were packing up his bedroom as he prepared to move out. It slipped out when he realized that, despite the excitement of an apartment and roommates and all that freedom, this is hard. Changing your life, taking a step into your future. It means what has been normal is now the past, and that is a hard transition even if it’s to a good place.
And then, a few hours later when we stood by the truck, which was filled with his stuff, my own mask slipped. Because I remembered—that moment. That first moment I saw his face. That moment when I was so sure. That I would be a great mom, that I would give him everything he needed, that I would never mess up. When I was awash in the goodness of his personality, that indefinable Jacob sweetness.
Jake saw that I was struggling. So he came over and hugged me. He said, “Oh, Murm,” and he patted my shoulder and I put my face against his chest (because that is as high as I can reach) and I sobbed. Not just sobbed, but keened, a raw sound I hope no neighbors heard. Because for that moment there it was, the goodness, the kindness.
And for a second, even though him moving out felt like having my liver being pulled out of my ear canal, felt like losing him, like I lost, when he hugged me it felt like I didn’t fail. Like maybe I was a good mom. Like maybe I did give him at least some of the things he needed.
You start out from that first moment, loving your child with a feeling that the word “love” doesn’t manage to convey, starting to know them, and then learning them throughout their lives. Until something happens, adolescence, a mistake, something, and they start keeping secrets, they turn away, they keep themselves away from you. You know them at their essential self but you slowly stop knowing them.
It is how it has to be, I suppose. So that growth can happen, so that we can separate like we must.
But oh, it is painful.
I can’t reconcile those two experiences, the first time I saw Jake, and then the last year, wanting to still know him, but not knowing him.
So I put my head on his chest and I wept and he, with his goodness, patted my back and gave me, as he left, a bit of himself again.
When you have a baby, you never can really imagine yourself into this place, when your child is no longer a baby, is the opposite of a baby, and is determined to go out into the world. When you have to let go. But motherhood is like that, isn’t it? We are always letting go. They grow and change so fast, there is barely time to love who they are now before they change again into a new thing. But this—this leaving. Even though he’s only across town. This is as hard to label as anything else—I don’t have a word for it. It’s an ending that requires grieving, but that’s silly because it’s not like anyone died. He’s doing exactly what 18-year-olds should do: moving upward into his own life.
It’s what we are working for as mothers. Making ourselves obsolete.
My voice has quieted, but somewhere inside me I am still making that raw sound.
So here I am, a week later. Eight days after Jake moved out. I’ve talked to him a few times, he’s come home for dinner, but it’s not the same. He is not the same. The wall covering up his truest self is firmly in place and his responses let me know that I’m mostly bugging him. He wants to move around in his parent-free world. And I am terrified of the possibility of the choices he could make. I still want to spare him every single heartache. But this is the motherhood place I am in right now: all I can do now, mostly, is watch. Is hope I taught him enough, or that he was listening even when it seemed he wasn’t listening. Hope that he will fulfill his enormous potential, that he won’t make irreversible mistakes. That he will find people who will see in him what I know is there—and I don’t mean his ridiculous math and science aptitude. I mean that indefinable thing, the goodness, the sweetness, the kindness. I hope he will find a space where he can be that person.
(I didn't take any pictures of Jake moving out. It was too hard. But this is us at his graduation this spring.)
(This post inspired by Stephanie Howell's "Blog Your Heart" series.)