The thing no one tells you, when you are pushing and panting to bring a baby into the world, is that the process is just a blueprint for something you will do again and again as you watch that squinting newborn grow and evolve.
In no moment has this been clearer to me than in this season. Parenting an eleven-year-old and a fourteen-year-old through the messy middle years, every day is new terrain. Their bodies change as quickly as their tastes and opinions. Fumbling toward adulthood like foals learning to walk, graceless and earnest, they reinvent themselves daily.
There is a separation from parents that happens when kids grow to adolescence. Psychologists tell us this, but that makes it no less surprising to me. It is normal for them to hug you less, to roll their eyes, to close the bedroom door, to tell you that you’re wrong and that now they have their own ideas and their own preferences. This is the threshold they have to cross to reach the other side, to enter adulthood on their own sturdy feet. I can’t begin to entirely know what lies ahead for them. But as I watch them become young adults, I often think of that line in Cheryl Strayed’s essay, “The Future Has An Ancient Heart,” where she says, “Who we become is born of who we most primitively are . . . We both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.”
I didn’t know what would come in my life as a mother either, and yet somehow it’s not entirely surprising. When they were little, I was tapped out. It felt like an eternal stretch of years when I would eat with a kid on my lap, leaning outward in the other direction to reach my fork, make dinner with one of them tugging on my leg and asking to be held, lie on the couch on a Friday night under a tangle of little arms and legs. Though I could not always see beyond the place I was in, that season was not eternal. Now they have unspoken boundaries with their bodies. I side hug; I check their foreheads for fever with the backside of my hand; I offer a high five when they come home excited about a test grade. I am here as a pillar they don’t have to touch to know it is there.
On school days, I have to drag their heavy limbs out of bed. On weekends, they no longer wake me at 6:00 a.m. I am writing this line on a Saturday afternoon with my legs folded up beneath me on my bed in the quiet with the door wide open and no one interrupting me. They stay in their rooms more than they used to: doors closed, laughing on the phone with friends. I walk by and hear it through the door, a whole world I am not a part of, language I hardly understand.
But there is something else about this phase they are in that I do understand. It feels like I’m in a messy middle too, a threshold between now and what comes later. I am not young. I am not old. I am something in between.
I’m reminded I’m no longer young when my son calls my favorite music cringe. Sometimes we agree about music, though, and his unique taste means I often drive down the road from practice to rehearsal listening to Flaming Lips or Elliott Smith or sometimes even John Coltrane. But every now and then he decides to play something more current and foreign to me that makes my ears ache in agony. It’s become an inside joke between the two of us, how much I hate it. “Mom,” he asks me one day, “do you think I’ll still love this band when I’m older?” I chuckle and say, “I hope not.” But then I remember how only the night before, needing some solace and comfort in our house full of noise, I reached for my headphones and The Sundays’ Blind, an album I listened to on repeat as a high schooler, and still I know every word. I hear the lyrics with the same resonance I did when I was 16, sighing in agreement as she sings the opening lines of “I Feel” in my ear. If it’s true that the young and the old get everything, when is it my turn?
It’s my turn now to watch them grow at a pace that leaves me breathless. My son’s shoulders are stretching wide; his voice has deepened; my daughter’s face is changing shape to look less like a child and more like the woman she will become. I also notice my own changing face and body in that surprised and foreign way I observed in early adolescence. Curves changing shape, skin that feels softer than it used to, laughlines I see today that weren’t there yesterday. I look at baby photos of my kids, and what shocks me is that I, too, look like a baby version of myself, rounder cheeks and naive eyes.
I carry that mother like a nesting doll inside, the same way I know my kids have some toddler version of themselves buried beneath who they have become. We are both growing new skins as the years go by, yet the others are always somewhere inside. I feel them: the pregnant mother waiting and dreaming in anticipation, the mother up at midnight to rock and feed a baby, the newly single mother navigating fears of an unknown terrain, the young mother with kindergarten crafts and tooth fairy dollar bills. Each one feels like lifetimes ago, another person entirely, yet they are all nestled inside me as layers beneath these messy middle years.
As my children’s emotional landscape widens, I too am making room for the next evolution. In that same essay, Strayed tells me, “Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” Motherhood feels like grieving, waving goodbye to each phase as I have just begun to settle into it. The ground always shifts beneath my feet soon after I finally gain my footing. Sometimes this process feels impossible to swallow, but I do. It’s buried inside now, alchemizing some change I know will come.
If midlife is the adolescence of adulthood, what am I separating from? What am I leaving behind? These are questions I begin to ask myself, and the unknown answers feel both terrifying and liberating.
Watching the clock, waiting to taxi my kids to swim practice and ballet, I close my eyes and imagine a place where I am free to think and listen to my own heart’s callings, and for a moment, I want to run. But I am still tethered to them. Not in the same way we were bound a decade ago, but with another cord. One I know will loosen in the years to come, and sometimes that makes me want to hold it even closer. Who I am without them is inconceivable.
For now, there is no time to dream and chart my next evolution. This middle space between young and old is swallowed up by to-do lists and expectations invented by the machine of modern parenting that gets more demanding and complex with every generation. My girlfriends and I trade hurried texts. Did you get that email about magnet schools and the deadline for applications? Did this weekend’s rehearsal time get extended? Sorry this is last minute, but do you have an old Halloween costume we can borrow? My father in law was diagnosed with cancer last week. I hope you guys are managing okay. My Boy Scout dues are late. I’ll drop dinner on your porch at six tonight. Do y’all have recommendations for a pediatric endocrinologist? Let me know what you need. Why is everything so hard? We lay aside the ache for the bigger questions and instead spend our days patching holes to keep our households afloat.
In Strayed’s essay, she tells a class of college graduates that “eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.” As I watch my kids discover their own truths and remember what it felt like to be their age in the messy middle of adolescence, I think about that idea. There are so many stories I told myself when I was young that turned out to be false: that a well-built life was safe from heartache; that I was an eternal, fixed concept; that success is measurable from the outside; that anything is required of me to be loved; that perfection is an attainable goal.
But what are the two things that remain so true that they make me howl? My willingness to write the first line on a blank page and let it carry me home. My insistence that I have to build a life on the foundation of my own longings if it’s going to feel like my life at all.
When I think about the only time in my life that I made a sound like a howl, I remember birthing my daughter. Lying in a tub with a midwife at the other end, I made a primitive noise I had never witnessed in myself before or heard since. It was harrowing and victorious.
Birth is hard. It is nine months of effort as your belly swells and stretches as the baby grows. And when the time comes, it is with a force of its own, sometimes slow and agonizing, and sometimes so fast you hardly know what’s happening until it’s over. You sweat and push and grunt and do something you didn’t know you could do. At the end, the reward is a whole new life you hold in your hands with its own path and its own future.
I am birthing something else now, though I don’t know what that is yet. It is gestating inside of me, this next evolution of what I will become. Right now, it feels like a vague, amorphous thing. Unknown. But it is as real as flesh and bone and made of my own hunger. I am trying, as Strayed tells us, to “let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits.”
I have buried my desires for now, knowing that later I can dig them up. They wait for me.
One day soon my children will be grown and discovering the world for themselves, charting their own paths. And I’ll hold my dreams in my arms like a newborn squinting and stretching, fresh from the other side with cries that sound like a song. I’ll hold my own life to my chest and tell her even when she was buried deep, I always knew she was coming.