What Tipped the Scales for This Mom in the Balance of Motherhood

My oldest son brings home a Pomski puppy a few weeks before he graduates from college and moves back in with us. The puppy’s biggest fault is that he wants to be held every minute which doesn’t fare well for sleeping. My son is 22, so I don’t lend my opinion. But the question begs from that adorable button-eyed furry face—How much do I tell my son about raising this puppy and how much do I let him figure out on his own?
What tips the scales of motherhood?

[9 Ways to Breathe New Life Into Your Empty Nest]

The twist is that the challenge for my son, too, is figuring out how much time he should spend with the puppy and how much he should try to teach independence by leaving him in his crate. Deep layers here. Onion deep.

While we are acclimating to one child’s return, my youngest child has moved to a big city for college. When we visit him, and I see that a commuter train cut clear through his campus, one of my old worries returns. As a child, this son was a darter, always moving first, thinking later. More times than I can recall, I was relieved that I had been holding tightly to his hand when a bus whizzed past on a busy street. But, now in the dusk of my mothering, my struggle is to hold back from telling him, a young man now, to look both ways whenever he crosses the track.

Lately, I need help seeing the places where the edges of motherhood have begun to fray—reading the signs along the way telling me it’s time to stop being a mother. Just when I am becoming more farsighted, the end of motherhood moves into closer range.

Motherhood is a balance, I am learning, between watching and trusting, between supporting and coddling, between forcing and encouraging. And when there are multiple children in a family, the scales can even tip in both directions at once.

In the midst of this first week of puppy adjustment, I receive a text from my daughter who is away at college. Typically, she’ll message about a great poem she read or a funny story she wants to share. This particular text is not typical.

Bomb scare on campus and a shooter. I am sitting in an open auditorium with no lock on the door.

A gulp of air snags my windpipe. Thoughts of jumping in the car and racing to her school consume. I need to be there. But my daughter’s college is five hours away, and once the feeling of parental helplessness gives way to a trickle of reason, I know rushing off is not the answer.

Mom, I’m scared.

I hold my phone with both hands like somehow it connects me to her through a channel stronger than the typed words we are sharing. The campus is in lock down under a “shelter-in-place” order. This I get from her next text. My daughter is in an open auditorium with a professor who doesn’t appear to find it necessary to move his class to a room with doors that lock. Perhaps, giving him the benefit of the doubt, it is his way of keeping the students calm. Or perhaps he doesn’t believe in the reality of the danger. My daughter asks what she should do to protect herself.

Look around for the nearest exit. Look also for something to use as a weapon. See if you can get some of the students to go with you to lock the outside doors of the building. I wait.

No one seems to care, she texts. They’re all just listening to the lecture.

Don’t these people read the news? I pound into my cell phone, realizing as I push “Send” that what I typed is not helpful.

We talk for a while. She reports that there isn’t much available with which to defend herself except for two rather strong male students sitting up front. She finds the nearest exit with her eyes, only a short run away. But she’s having trouble getting anyone’s attention to see whether any of her classmates share her concerns.

I wait.

A few minutes later, she texts me that her professor told his students not to leave the auditorium. Then, he got up and, as he left the classroom, announced that he was not coming back. Why is he leaving them there? Isn’t he the adult in the room? Isn’t my child’s security on campus somehow covered by that large tuition bill?

We’ve taught our children to think for themselves, never to simply follow, so I know if she is going to be safe, she will have to come up with her own plan. “Get some of the students and find a locked room,” I text. She doesn’t answer.

As our new puppy circles my feet, whining a bit, I stare at my cell, waiting for my daughter’s next words. I know my daughter. She uses her brain well under pressure. She isn’t going to sit around and wait for danger to find her.

At the same time, I do my own research. One screen of my computer is open to the college’s website, while another is open to local news for her college town. The third is still open from when my daughter first texted me, and I had been trying to research whether dogs are allergic to olives and whether an olive might have caused those hiccup-looking things that the puppy was doing earlier.

My daughter texts me again. She’d gotten a small bunch of students together and led them through the halls to a locked lab. She remembered that she knew the code from when she had done research there. Now, there are seven of them in a room with no windows and no food, but at least there is a lock on the door.

[Don’t Worry, You are NOT a Helicopter Parent]

“Wonderful,” giving too much credit to that push-button lock between my daughter and the shooter wandering the campus.

I check the college website for an update. Apparently, they found multiple suspicious packages and are waiting on the arrival of the nearest bomb squad from a large city over an hour and a half away. No update on the shooter.

My daughter describes how she and her clan ran quietly through the building and snuck down the halls to the lab. It must have been nerve-racking, not knowing where the danger was, who it was, or even if there was a danger. She “LOLs” that it might even have been fun if they knew for certain there was nothing hiding around the next corner.

We text intermittently throughout the long day. I can tell she’s comfortable in the lab with her classmates. She, too, is keeping up-to-date by text from her campus alert system. We wait some more.

Eventually, her thoughts of safety turn into boredom and hunger. Then, a few hours later—extreme hunger sets in. My daughter and her classmates are locked in that room for eight hours.

How I want to pluck her out of there, to be sitting on my couch with her sharing a slice of carrot cake and a pot of tea. How I want at least to send her a pizza. But, at nineteen, she’s an adult, responsible for her own safety. There’s nothing parental I can do except wait for updates and rely on the ideas of self-protection that we taught her.

This is what it’s like to raise adult children, fighting the urge to run up there and protect my child while lightly coaching another child to let his puppy do more on its own. These are the issues that get snagged in the fringe. Sometimes, we still need to be there to lean on. Other times, we have to bear the burden of seeing the struggle but not being able to help.

I do eventually lose the restraint and tell my son that I think his sleep problems will end when he puts the puppy in his crate overnight. He decides to listen, and my adorable grand-puppy doesn’t make a liar out of me. We learn that the convulsions are just hiccups.

My daughter spends eight hours in that locked lab room with no windows. No shooter is found, and the suspicious boxes turn out to be photograph developer solution. The police are still looking for the person who made the threats. We are so overwhelmingly grateful for how this turns out. On that same day, a campus shooter is apprehended at a small school in the South. Sadly, that story does not end as well.

After my daughter’s scare has been resolved, I decide to tell my youngest son in the big city about my fears of him getting hit by a train. Maybe I don’t have to hold onto my silly worries out of fear of over-mothering. Maybe it’s good that they know I’m a person too with my own struggles. My son’s response—“Oh, Mom, I never want to be the cause of you having to worry. I give you my word: I’ll be careful.” And with those words, the scales tip a bit in my direction.


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Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Literary Mama, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Manifest Station, Rust + Moth, the HerStories Anthology, So Glad They Told Me, and others. A Pushcart prize nominee, she is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She is the Founder of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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