On a recent rare day when my teens and I were all off work and school, we decided to play local tourists. We visited several historical sites dotted throughout the city and then capped it all off with a long drive up the coast home. As we pulled into our driveway, it occurred to me that we’d just spent the entire day in the car and I hadn’t driven any of it.
My 17-year-old son had happily done all the chauffeuring. My 14-year-old daughter interrupted my thoughts with an announcement that she wanted to make everyone curry for dinner, while a notification popped up in our family calendar that my 18-year-old daughter had just scheduled a hair appointment.
I noted how little work I’d put into making the day happen and how they were taking over duties that once made parenting so exhausting. It hit me like a hurricane that the ultimate goal of parenting — to create fully functioning adults — was finally materializing before my very eyes.
Naturally, I responded by bursting into tears.
I have spent the better part of two decades immersed in parenting. Despite a heavily involved husband, who has always shared the load, and a deep desire to avoid allowing parenting to consume me, all my other jobs and roles have necessarily taken second fiddle to caring for these once-little people who could not care for themselves. It’s the agreement we make when we become parents.
In our situation, though, we had neither nearby family nor the finances to ease the workload. Even when I tried desperately to allow other roles to garner momentum and usurp the mom in me, I could not. I often lamented that struggle. I didn’t want to be a mom above all else. I wanted other identities — writer, friend, wife, lover, hiker, funny lady, anything — to have their chance in the spotlight. There have been many times along the road when I burst into tears precisely because I wanted to loosen the grip of motherhood on my identity.
Here I was, though, sitting in my car lamenting the very loss of that mother role.
As much as I’d resisted pigeonholing myself as a parent, being a mother has indeed dominated my identity — in a good way. It has forced me into experiences and relationships I might never have known otherwise. If I could write out a resume based solely upon the tasks I have accomplished and the skills I have developed in my parenting role, I would be eligible for more jobs than any paid work experience has ever afforded me. Further, the investment has yielded bonds that defy comparison. The richness of motherhood is as exquisite as it is exhausting.
I know I am not nearly finished with full-time parenting. My kids all live at home and, as my youngest frequently reminds me, she is still several years away from college. I also know that I will never fully retire from parenting. It is a perpetually evolving job. Just as the frenzied years of diapering and waking through the night once made way for skinned knees and learning to read, these years of teaching kids to drive and guiding them through first kisses and heartbreaks will make way for comforting them through hirings and firings and long-term relationships.
Regardless of the enduring nature of the parenting role, that moment in the car felt like a check in the box towards finality to me. Accordingly, I feel hopelessly poetic about it.
My role as a mom who taught my son to drive had expired. I loved teaching him to drive. Driving was something he has wanted to do since he was aware cars existed. I got to watch his relationship to cars develop from the day he started pointing them out to this day when he flawlessly chauffeured us all over town. He didn’t need anymore driving pointers from me.
And my youngest? She made a butter-chicken that was so creamy and flavorful I ended up asking her for her secret. After endless hours of her joining me in the kitchen and me cleaning up her torrential messes, she’d out butter-chickened me. I was at once proud beyond words at her accomplishment and at a loss for words about the job she would no longer need me to do.
Though it might seem insignificant, my eldest daughter’s hair appointment took the greatest hold of my emotions. When I fix my daughter’s thick, coily hair, it takes us a minimum of three hours, often more like eight or nine hours if we are braiding it. It has always offered us such precious bonding time, usually spent alternating between watching movies of her choice and talking about anything and everything that comes to mind. Before she started driving, even salon appointments gave us multiple uninterrupted hours at a stretch together. That’s pretty rare for the oldest child. She didn’t just make this hair appointment herself. She will drive there alone and spend all that braiding time without me. It is at once a huge task off my plate and a palpable absence of time spent together.
More important, like my son’s driving and my youngest daughter’s cooking, it is a stark reminder that I am working myself out of this version of motherhood. As I rapidly cascade into the next version, I am thankful that my kids are becoming self-sufficient. I am thrilled that they are taking on adult responsibilities with finesse. And I am sad at this bittersweet reminder that raising children into adulthood entails losing so much of who I have been since the day I first looked a child in the eye and knew I was mom.
Paula Fitzgibbons is a former Lutheran pastor who hung up her collar when she became a mom to three kids in 11 months. They’re all teens now, one in college — so besides never sleeping ever, she is a freelance writer and a Communications Director in The Episcopal Church. She also plays with yarn and hikes the gorgeous cliffs overlooking California beaches. Her work can be found in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Scary Mommy. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as well.