This morning, I woke up about an hour before the alarm went off. I was lonely. Specifically, I was lonely for my son, who has not spoken to us for nearly six months. And you may be thinking six months is nothing-moms who send their kids for military service go far longer. And you would be right. But these have been six months of angry, insistent silence in a family that has always been close. Not only did he unfriend his father and me on Facebook, he unfriended his sisters. If there is one thing I have always felt joy in, it is that my kids loved each other as children, and they still loved each other and spent time together as adults. Until…
In anger, I took a stand and made an ultimatum about a relationship with a woman we (the whole family, hence the shunning of sisters) think is unhealthy for him. I made him choose, because I couldn’t stand to keep watching him struggle. I made the mistake of confronting them both in public, after an exhausting week of moving out of my house and getting our festival opened and physical therapy for two bulging lumbar discs. I had spent two straight weeks being bombarded by the needs of my colleagues at work while packing a house, arranging for utilities to be shut off, and gathering paperwork to prep for closing. And after months of renewed, impending panic attacks. I was, quite literally, at wit’s end. And my son and his girlfriend caught the brunt of it.
I have asked for forgiveness, it’s not coming. I have told my son that I will wait with arms open for as long as it takes, and I will.
Each child you raise brings with himself or herself a unique set of gifts…and challenges. I remember with utter clarity the first moment I looked into my son’s eyes- they are a rich blend of blue, green, and brown, and they are deep. His hours-old eyes were like deep pools. I don’t even know how long we stared at each other that first day, we had been given the unexpected gift of quiet time with no one else in the room. It might have been two minutes or five minutes or forever. He was the one with the sour tummy-I had to nurse him in the restroom (in those days you did not nurse in public and I am glad that has changed) and I would set him on my knee to burp him. He could spit up so hard it shot straight to the stall wall and dripped down. At night, he could only sleep if I laid him against my stomach and patted his back. If I fell asleep and stopped patting, he awoke. If his dad tried to comfort him, it didn’t work. It was just me, and I would prop myself up on the headboard, patting his back and catching little snatches of sleep. I also fell asleep at my desk when my first graders were doing desk work. Those kids were so sweet- they would just sit and color or play with their math manipulatives while I caught a few zzzzzs.
He is also a master of hide-and-seek. Just like me. Once, in Tulsa, he buried himself in the middle of a round rack full of jeans. We couldn’t find him, the store did a full lock down, and he just quietly giggled in his hiding place until we finally heard him. When he was about ten, he wanted to take dance classes- he was really graceful and had a marvelous ear for rhythm, but one day when it was time to go to the studio, he ran. We found him in the bushes a couple of houses down the block. We found out later the boys in the dance class were bullying him. Sometimes we would find him out on the roof of our house. There were nights in his early teen years that we would have to walk the neighborhood to find him. But sometimes, he hid in plain sight. I get that. I do it, too.
There is a lot of loneliness in parenting.
It starts at that first moment when the nurse walks out of the hospital room, leaving you alone with your new baby for the first time. That’s when a hint of it drops- This little round headed, wrinkly, red tiny human is mine. To take care of. Loneliness sinks in a little deeper when you’re rocking the crying baby at two in the morning, wiping spit up off your robe-whether you’re the mom or the dad. It’s lonely when you’re hiding in a dressing room, nursing the baby. It’s lonely when you drop your five year old off for their first day of Kindergarten-especially if they go in happy. You want them to go in happy, right? It means they are well adjusted, confident, curious. Except…you kind of wish they would run back and clutch your legs just one time.
That doesn’t change when they head to California or Australia, either. You watch them drive away, or you watch them pass through airport security, and their eyes are sparkling with hope and excitement, and you wish they would run back for one last hug.
Laundry was lonely. My husband and I did share laundry duty, but as he took over more and more of the cooking, I made it up by handling more laundry. There was so much. We did cloth diapers, so there were buckets of soaking dirty diapers for a long time. Lots of bleach and fabric softener and scrubbing and folding there. Later, there were baseball uniforms, and even later, Renaissance costumes. If we came home from a wet, rainy weekend at the festival, there were piles of damp muddy velvet to wash.
When the kids were really young, I somehow managed to get all the laundry folded and in its proper drawers. But as the years went by and we got busier, laundry ended up sitting in a clean pile on the window seat in the living room. Every morning, kids visited the seat looking for socks or undies or a particular shirt or dance leotard. Folding laundry was a lonely job. I didn’t do so great at it.
Parenting was really, really lonely in the months of early 2001, when I was separated from my husband and had to manage everything pretty much by myself- cooking, driving, homework. I fell to pieces in a parent teacher conference when I tried to explain what was happening. I got my kids to bed, the six year old sleeping with me because she couldn’t sleep anywhere else. I cuddled with her until she nodded off, then sat up and played Freecell on the computer while listening to Norah Jones and bawling. My oldest daughter just found the courage to tell me last summer that she had blamed me for every minute of that marital separation when it happened. That was lonely.
When your kids are young, it seems like the loneliness is found in the physical- the moments of exhaustion that accompany midnight potty trips and bouts of fever. But when they are teens, the loneliness is found in the moments you reach out to them- never really sure if they’re going to return the affection or use the moment to assert their burgeoning independence. You’re caught standing in the high school parking lot, watching your kids walk away to join their friends at Sonic, when you were hoping for time to take them for a milkshake.
But in my experience, the loneliest time of parenting has been this one- kids in their twenties, going off and living their own independent lives. My eldest is divorcing after just two years of marriage. That’s lonely. My son is dating a young woman who is, ultimately, a good person. She’s got some damage. We want, for her sake and his, for her damage to heal. We hope it does. My youngest daughter just moved out (again), she’s figuring it all out and having a lot of fun while she does. At 23 years old, that’s how it should be.
Of course, it’s what parents want- we don’t really want them to live with us and use up our toilet paper and laundry soap indefinitely. Each time my adult daughters visit, then drive away, I hurt for them. I wish for a day when they climbed in my lap for snuggles.
And I keep wishing, on every dandelion I can find, that my son will find his way back to the lonely mom who longs for him.