The last pause of motherhood

By Jennifer Niesslein

It’s three in the morning in the emergency room, and you’re sleeping in your hospital bed, your eighteen-year-old thin limbs akimbo. The first time I saw pictures of your dad at that age, I thought he looked handsome, just undercooked; you remind me of him. I’m in a folding chair. Dehydration (yours) and worry (mine) treated hours ago, your IV bag is empty and we’re just waiting for someone to let us go home.

I’m nearly delirious with fatigue and so cold that I have half a mind to snatch your warmed blanket. I don’t have anything to do but watch you sleep.

It’s a pause in our normal lives a few months before the big pause—when we pack you off to Oberlin. I’d forgotten, already, all the pauses that motherhood forced me to take. Before you were born, nothing made me angrier than being told how my life would change. No time. No brain power. No sleep. No sex. All loss for me for the gain of you. Why so goddamned adversarial, people? I wanted to take you—my very wanted and beloved son—in stride.

I did, I think. We did, I mean. People forget that the parent-child relationship is a relationship, with allowances you make for each other. It’s not an equal balance. You didn’t have a choice in what allowances you made for me, but the allowances I made for you required me to slow down.

I fed you at five in the morning, zoning out to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and you dozed off afterwards; my breasts still tingle weirdly at the sight of old pictures of Bob Saget. (TMI, I know.) I can still feel the heft of your sleeping two-year-old body as I lifted you, napping, from your car seat. I still remember when I finished my lunch, gazed out the sheet glass window past the parking lot at the mountains, and got lost in my own head while your pre-school jaws worked on the bagel. “Are you thinking about dinosaurs, Mama?” you asked, bringing me back into our lives. I abided when your seven-year-old self flopped on my lap and instructed me to tickle you all over. I can still smell your sweat-dampened hair when it changed from straight to wavy, from blonde to brown.

For years now, we’ve been going full speed ahead, hardly any pauses at all. Dad and I drove you to lessons/packed your lunches/did your laundry/took you to dates/got to know your friends and their parents/went to concerts/taught you to shave/understood that you were becoming a man. You made me Mother’s Day cards/learned how to iron/set up my iPhone/learned to do your own laundry/worked hard at school/went to feminist rallies/started shaving/became a man.

I didn’t know that you’d become a musician like your father, but you did. I watch you sleeping here in the hospital and even in your dreams, you’re making that clarinet mouth. I want to touch you, but I don’t dare disturb your sleep with my frozen fingers.

It’ll only occur to me months later, in the flurry of weeks before we take you to the conservatory, that this was the last pause, the quiet part when someone takes a slow, moving solo—like in the symphonies that I learned to understand because of you—before there’s a big crescendo and it’s all over, and we marvel at what we were a part of, then go back to the lives we had before this stupendous thing happened.

Jennifer Niesslein is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. It turns out, the empty nest experience is a lot like becoming a parent in the first place—you hear everyone’s horror stories, but until it happens to you, you can’t know how it’ll play out. (Pretty well, in this case.) More at

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