Let me be more specific. I remember the transitioning of my being and thoughts as they occurred at the moment of the birth of my first child. In many ways, I too was born on that same day. I looked at my beautiful newborn son and thought; I will protect him with my life and make sure that he is happy, healthy and unharmed. It was a time of truly putting someone else before me in a way that I had never experienced. It was the miracle of life.
I looked at him when he slept, when I nursed him and held him close to my heart. He was unmarked, innocent; a new life starting out as a fresh, unmolded piece of clay. I wondered what shape he would take. Being a potter had taken on a clear new meaning.
Sometimes, in the wee morning hours, I would think that we were the only two people on earth who were awake. Being a first time mother, I had not figured out that it was okay if he was awake, that he didn’t necessarily need anything. He wasn’t fussy, just wakeful. Exhausted and hormonally stirred, I mentioned the lack of sleep to my father. He smiled and told me that we were getting to know each other.
I never expected that kind of maternal wisdom from my father, but I got it; a gift that I continue to cherish. From that day on, whenever anyone complains about lack of sleep because of a newborn, I smile and tell them that they are getting to know each other. This way of thinking took away the edge when I sat up at night with my other two newborns. Celebrate.
When I discovered that I was pregnant again, I panicked a bit because I thought it impossible to love another like I did my son. Sixteen months later, I learned another valuable lesson in motherhood; yes, your heart can handle loving another child as you do the first. That was undeniably remarkable to me then. I loved my two sons unconditionally and knew that when my daughter was born two years later that I had the capacity to love yet another child.
I continued to think that I somehow could keep all three of them safe, loved, nurtured and happy. I have no regrets regarding my love for them then and now. Many of our experiences could be taken from the pages of “Little House on the Prairie.” We played music together, had a farm on a pristine mountaintop and I home educated them for many years. I must add that we were not religious fundamentalists hunkered down waiting for the feds with our guns cocked. We were involved in what I term a “Classical Education.”
The days were filled with laughter, learning, music and discovery. I remember thinking that this was my life and I couldn’t picture it any other way. I was too deliriously busy to entertain the thought of an end. There was always tomorrow.
Of course we had some serious obstacles to face together. Our life was far from perfect and we endured certain traumas that many people would not have escaped unharmed. The hardships themselves were not the issue. How we navigated them was what mattered. They were seeds waiting to be found, gathered and planted for a defining and bountiful future. I am pleased with how we conducted ourselves and the bond that we forged between us; a mother and her three children.
Today they are grown. My eldest is in the Navy and will be married within a year, my second son is in the beginning phases of a solid career violinist and my daughter is a Bohemian gypsy whose choices keep me awake every night. All have chosen a very different path in life that suits them. Like all of us, they are the result of their choices and actions.
I was proud of myself when my first son left for college, I told myself (and others) that I did not suffer from the ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ because I was careful to nurture and cultivate my own interests and passions. Now I see that it was simply untrue. I did not feel the actual impact of loss because the other two were still at home. The nest was not empty.
I thought that there was something wrong with me because I was handling it so well. Of course I felt a sense of loss when he went away, but it wasn’t as intense as I have seen it in other mothers.
Then a few years later my second son went off to music conservatory. At that point I had sold everything that wasn’t nailed down to afford his music training, so I was relieved that he finally made it. We struggled financially right up until the day before he left.
I wasn’t sure how I felt. The empty nest syndrome was starting to peck lightly into my psyche but it was faint and I could ignore it. I thought that it was the perfect time to really focus on my daughter, who was like that person on the end of the ‘crack the whip’ game that we played on the skating rink of my childhood.
She was sixteen-years-old, had her first boyfriend and went to an alternative private day school. I worked four days a week and attended a low residency graduate school. As much as I wanted to have that special mother – daughter time that seemed to fit so perfectly, it simply didn’t happen.
We enjoyed each other when we had the opportunity, but she was entrenched in the teenage social scene and was anything but typical. Being blessed with an extraordinary amount of creativity that oozes out of each pore can often equal being misunderstood.
As appropriate for a natural, healthy teenager, she needed to separate from me to establish her identity and independence. We are so much alike that it is scary to me in a way and then it was frustrating for her. My mother was not an artist; I grew up as the artsy one in an athletic family. I knew what it was like to be misunderstood. But I get my daughter all too well. It was this almost oneness that drove a sort of wedge between us.
Both of us are cellists, writers, painters, melancholics, naturalists and activists. She published her first book when she was seventeen. When reading it, I was stunned when I read a section of poetry that was unmistakably familiar, yet I had not seen these particular poems before that moment. It was then that I discovered that we used to sit by our windows looking out at the same night sky writing poetry. She was in her room upstairs while I sat in my room below hers. We looked at the same moon, the same apple trees, and the same mountains and wrote very different poetry. Unlike the years of playing cello duets and being in orchestra, we did this alone together.
She went to college for two years and quit so that she could travel around the country playing music with kindred spirits. Her heroes are Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie and a host of others who travelled this vast country of ours.
Now I must take time to learn the language of letting go. Last winter she was in New Orleans. When she was there, she lost her cell phone and did not contact me for months. For the first time since she left the safety of our home, I was consumed with fear. It is the unknowing that is too difficult for me to accept. The pecking of the empty nest syndrome shattered me at that point.
She returned to her home base in Vermont last summer and spent time with me. Then she traveled to Chicago for a while and returned again to visit me. When we were together, I asked her to help me understand. We both did our best. She is a ‘traveling kid’, which is part of a rapidly growing subculture of youth who have pretty much given up on our society and lack of options. They travel around the country playing music and doing migrant work. It’s very exciting for them. They are resourceful and have a code amongst themselves. They do not panhandle; however, they earn their money unconventionally. This has been a way of life in this country throughout history.
If she was someone else’s daughter, I would be excited and climb on my soapbox talking about her courage and determination to stay out of a broken system that has let them down in unimaginable ways.
However, she is my daughter. She is traveling as the wind takes her with her backpack and whatever instrument she is taking on that particular leg of her journey. (She started with her cello, and is down to a ukulele). She earns her living by busking.
For the sake of my well being, I am teaching myself to let go of the fear that has gripped me. It is a process, a time to comprehend that our children are not ours at all. We love them, teach them and give them the best guidance that we know how. When they mature and spread their wings to fly, we cannot fly for them. We can let them know that we are here to catch them, hopefully, if they fly close enough and if you know where to find them if and when they fall. It is the most frightening time that I have experienced.
I became a slave to my cell phone, taking it with me into the bathroom, afraid that I might miss her call. This fear has come to own me. But I decided that it cannot, because it was taking a toll on my health. I cannot control another person, even my daughter. It is a waste of energy. I try to erase the constant images that emerge; images of her as a sweet and innocent child who had tea parties with her dolls and the cat. I try to stay in the present and maintain a sense of balance instead of feeling hopeless, afraid and lost.
She will come to visit me again before she heads west. I will not plead with her to stay, as I did before. I will not offer her the moon and stars. I will not pretend that I do not care. I will appreciate the time that we have together and we will sit outside and look at the moon together. She will promise to call me and I will try not to cry.
I am here. It is now. I cannot sell myself to fear. I can, however, pass this message along to you. If you are a parent of young children now, please cherish and savor every moment, because it will not last forever. They grow up and go away. Trust, love and patience is what will bring them back but never as yours, rather as the free spirited individual who they have become. The umbilical cord is not severed; it continues to grow.