By Randi Olin
I got used to being my son’s go-to person when he was a little boy—to tie his shoes and tuck him in at night, to pick him up when he’d fallen, to hold on tight when he was sad. “Uppa Mama,” he’d say, and I’d pull him close, the folds in his arms like faint tally marks as he’d drape himself around my neck, his head falling to a familiar resting spot on my shoulder. He wasn’t ready to come out of me when he did, I was induced a week early because of his size. If left to him, I think he would have stayed a part of me for longer.
Rocking back and forth in the creaky antique glider, I thought in my postpartum haze that ours was a closeness that would stand the test of time; that he was my person, and I his. This boy, who I didn’t sleep train as I did his older sister, who I would rush to whenever he’d cry for me at night. I can’t say with certainty why I did these things only for him, but that’s the way it was. He seemed more vulnerable than my firstborn, and I knew he was my last child. I wanted to linger in the scent of new motherhood for as long as possible.
That little boy who would cling to me is now a teenager who opts to spend much of his time in his room, wrapped up like a burrito in his comforter, his laptop deftly propped up against his knees, binge-watching Netflix. He’s chosen to shut me out of these teen years. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, this shift between the before and after, when he no longer needed me as much, when he pushed me away, when he started saying, “I’ve got this,” whenever I’d offer help or advice. I’ve had to mother from the sidelines these past years more than ever before, even on those days when all I’ve wanted was to pick him up after he had fallen.
Having two kids at home masked this aching loss. My daughter’s presence, in particular, made it seem less overt. A natural extrovert, her time at home was spent lingering in the common rooms of the house, making flashcards and PowerPoints for upcoming tests at the kitchen table, eating Cheeto Puffs while videochatting with friends on the family room sectional. She’s been the unintentional buffer these past few years. I hadn’t fully realized the role she’d been playing until right before she left for college, when it hit me how much the oxygen in our household would soon change with her gone.
“I want to learn from my own mistakes,” my son says when I try to intervene. What does a mother say to that? I am proud, of course, he is growing up. But a part of me doesn’t recognize this boy who has a preference for owning his choices, both good and bad, who casts aside any reassurance from his mother, whose validation he once valued above all. So instead I picture him as a toddler, his little hands adjusting the straps of his denim overalls as I hold him in my arms, his head leaning against mine, as if we are conjoined. He is the anchor to my days of motherhood; he is my last child in the house. In three years’ time, he too will be gone.
My daughter leaving for college has forced me to take a closer look at my relationship with my son. “You’ve been so much better since she’s left,” he said recently. “You let me be.” And I know what he is trying to say, yet I am convinced he means “go” instead of “be.” From the beginning, I approached my second-round of motherhood with every ounce of emotion I could muster, perhaps that is the very reason it hurts so deeply to let him go now.
I didn’t know what would happen when my son was the only one left, how things would be different, if he would pull even further away. In this new stage, though, I’ve loosened the reins, I’ve had to, because of who he is. And in doing so, our relationship feels like it is changing once more. Our mother-son venn diagram is overlapping again, after years of space, and I have learned that my need for closeness with him, in the way we were, is gone. In its place, with my daughter’s absence, an unspoken comfort has settled in.
These days, my son sprawls out on the family room sectional rather than tucked away in his room, our bodies apart yet close enough that I can still make out the distinct outline of his face. I look at him with a renewed sense of clarity, yet also with a familiar sameness, an echo of our tenderness from long ago.
Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. Among the photos she keeps on her desk is her very favorite—a picture with her toddler-aged son in his denim overalls. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.