This week my youngest child graduates from fifth grade, which means that after fifteen years, our family graduates from elementary school and closes the door on a tangible marker of our children’s childhoods.
Fifteen years of riding bikes to and fro, amazing teachers and some terrible ones, the daily morning rush of breakfast and packing lunches, last-minute errands for the school project just remembered and due tomorrow, recess drama hashed out around the dinner table, and the endless litany of volunteering and carpooling and dinner and sports practices.
My youngest eats and eats and inches his way up the wall where we record my children’s growth with pencil marks. One day soon he will pass me up in height and revise his goal to catch up to his siblings. His gaze has become more direct as he has grown paradoxically more confident and self-conscious. Lately he has developed an unexpectedly dry and delightful sense of humor.
Like clockwork, he still asks me to read to him at night and agreeably allows me to kiss him goodbye in the mornings as he heads out to his commute vehicle aka his bike. But he has become allergic to accepting any help from me whatsoever, and in public I have become the recipient of the down-low wave, along with the dispassionate glance that acknowledges me before flicking away. Now that we are on the brink of summer he has become, literally, too cool for school.
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Though I’m both resigned and amused to witness these signals of my son maturing, last September I realized that with little nostalgia I too was moving on. I detected in myself a strange and sudden apathy towards the elementary school I had supported and championed fiercely and watched semi-amazed as I firmly redirected much of the volunteering I had busied myself with for years. The side effect of this sea change is that for the first time since my oldest was born nineteen years ago, I’m making opportunities to reflect.
This door blows shut. Beyond it, another has already opened, and I’m gaining consciousness as I slide through the birth canal into the next chapter of my life. Yes, I am still a mother-tender, proud, loving, fierce, patient, and tired – supporting, reminding, encouraging, providing perspective, driving, cooking, watching baseball games and football games and swim meets and executing laundry with the finesse of an expert who has completed her 10,000 hours, ensuring that my words are both accurate and succinct enough to hold my children’s interest and that my capacity for listening is never dormant.
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And yet. I have become less of a perfectionist, less apt to run the vacuum or make beds, and it’s clear our kitchen junk drawer and garage are metaphors for my liberation. I haven’t relinquished my focus on health and pushing vegetables on my children, but they eat more junk than they used to and I find that I just don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.
Lately I ask my kids what they think they should do rather than telling them what I think they should do. My older ones do their own laundry, buy their own clothes and largely choose their own direction even as they check in, report their triumphs and setbacks, and complain or ask for advice. I’m spending a bit more time and money on myself, reading and writing more, exercising, connecting with friends, and focusing on my relationship with my husband. That far-off vision of my husband and I holding hands as we walk alone on a beach somewhere is less hazy than it used to be. More often, I’m deciding to buy the damn sweater already, making time to check out that museum exhibit while the kids are at school and challenging myself with the rock-climbing class, even if it means I’ll miss a baseball game or my husband will have to do double duty for the afternoon.
I’m remembering the girl and woman I used to be and seeing how I’ve changed. And like that flash of recognition when we glimpse ourselves unexpectedly in a mirror, this latest chapter of my journey is both familiar and new. I’m coming home to a place I recognize even though I’ve never been here before.
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