Last First

Today, my baby is ten years old. It’s the last time one of my kids will reach double digits for the first time. As far as birthdays go, it’s a pretty big deal.

He wants a big LEGO set, so he’s been “window” shopping on Amazon for weeks. (He’s so my kid.) In the meantime, I bought him an instant camera because he loves taking pictures of our dogs and then drawing pictures from the photos.

He’s an artist. When he’s not eating or sleeping, he’s drawing. Our kitchen table is strewn with fitful pictures of aliens, ninjas, super heroes, and dogs with eyes and mouths that evoke fear, courage, and love and stare at me from every angle.

When he’s not drawing, he plays the piano. And the guitar and the ukulele and the harmonica. He’s taken some music lessons, but he has the enviable ability to sit down with an instrument and make music.

I don’t know what he’ll do with his life, but I have a feeling it will give me permission to say, “Do what your love,” like my parents said to me.

Last weekend, I took my older son to his weekly swim lesson. It was the morning after Daylight Saving. We were exhausted even though we didn’t get out of bed until 9:30am. As I sat on the bench sipping coffee, scrolling my phone, and begging my brain to wake up, my tween on the cusp of 13 did a 200-yard freestyle warm-up.

I couldn’t help but admire his physical skills that were so vastly different from mine. He moved through his strokes with grace, speed, and ease, even after the clocks hoodwinked us. I passed my neighbor’s deep-end swim test with an impressive doggie paddle in 1983(ish), but my son’s rhythmic side-breathing as he coursed gracefully through the pool, especially after losing a precious hour in the earth’s rotation around the sun, was a sight to behold.

A parent/child swim class at the shallow end of the pool caught my sleepy eyes. Moms and dads willed their toddlers to blow bubbles and kick their legs, pleaded with them not to have to go to the bathroom after getting in the water, and wrestled with them as they made their way to the locker room wrapped in towels where negotiations would surely amp up.

With the time change, I imagined they’d been up since the wee hours of the morning. Bringing their babies to the pool, an enormous task on an average day, was probably a reprieve. An activity to pass the time on an infamously hellish day with littles.

I could feel that season of early parenting deep in my bones. Loving, hating, cherishing, and cursing every moment. Believing I was wholly responsible for how my kids turned out (in water and on land), holding on for dear life, and sinking under the weight of it all.

I’m treading in deeper water now in a world with deodorant and cell phones and the absence of hands reaching for mine at crosswalks. A world where my kids show me daily who they are, what they want, and where they’re headed. A world where my job isn’t to hold on to them; rather to let them go and hope they swim.

And swim, they do. And draw. And make music. And who knows what else. That’s the beauty of letting go.

Someday those frazzled parents in the shallow end would sit on the bench like me, scroll their phones, sip coffee, and watch their kids become—beautifully and imperfectly—exactly who they were meant to be. I could’ve tapped them on the shoulder to tell them about all the things their kids would eventually do that would surprise and amaze them, but they probably wouldn’t have believed me.

I can hardly believe it myself.

Today, my baby is ten years old. It’s the last time one of my kids will reach double digits for the first time. I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about the college admissions scandal, and one line has stuck with me: “It feels harder and harder to frame college as the beginning of something, not the end result.”

Last first double digits could feel like an end if I let it. But how can I when with each passing year, I get another glimpse of the remarkable beginning toward which these boys of mine are headed.

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26 Little Celebrations

 

Every night at bedtime, it’s the same routine. Put on pajamas. Brush teeth. Climb into bed.

“Can I have water?”

Yes, of course.

“Is there school tomorrow?”

Yes, there is.

I remind my boys of all the things to look forward to the next day. A dress down day or an early release. Maybe a play date.

Then, “Who wants to take a link off the paper chain tonight?”

“Me!” they chant in unison.

We take turns. We cheer, clap, and yell, “We did it!” It’s a little celebration we look forward to each night.

I count the links that are left, because it’s too many to remember.

Then it’s, “Good night, my Loves. Nineteen sleeps until Daddy comes home.”

My husband travels for work a lot. It’s not usually for so long, although there was one time when two weeks turned into three. Another time he was gone for 12 nights. Once it was nine. There have been a bunch of sevens and threes. This time it’s 26.

I try to keep it in perspective. He’s far away, but he’s not on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. I’m no longer changing diapers or doing night feedings. The kids go to school during the day and sleep through the night. They wipe their own butts and tie their own shoes (most of the time).

Still, solo parenting, temporary single parenting, or whatever you want to call it isn’t easy. Daddy’s an ocean away and several hours ahead, and I’m the only adult in the room when there’s a conflict at school, someone gets a foot stuck in a cinder block, or the dog drags a dead rat into the house. (These things do happen.)

It’s precisely because my boys aren’t babies anymore that 26 nights present such a challenge. Out of sight out of mind doesn’t work now the way it once did. On the contrary, their father’s absence is profound. Whereas these trips used to have an intense physical toll on me, now they have a powerful emotional toll on all of us.

I’m the primary caretaker in our household, which means day-to-day operations run smoothly (give or take a dead rat) even when my husband is away. It’s at the end of each night, though, when the chaos of the day winds down, the house grows quiet, and we prepare our tired bodies for bed, that we miss him and long for his presence the most. It’s when I ask, “Who wants to take a link off the paper chain tonight?” that I know we’re not bound by the continent on which we sleep, but rather by the force that connects us as a family. The 26 links on our chain symbolize that bond as much as they measure his absence or return. Even so, every strip of paper we rip off brings us another day closer to being together again, and that’s a pretty good excuse for 26 little celebrations.

This essay originally appeared on Mamalode.

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