I was painting a bathroom and it was supremely gratifying. I stepped back and surveyed my progress. I saw results. When all the components of the job were done, I had a sense of completion. I look for these types of projects on occasion because most of the other things I do are never done.
A friend told me parenting is a marathon. She advised me to tie my shoes and keep a steady pace. Like a marathon, parenting and all its accompanying tasks seem to have no end and can be exhausting. The clothes chute and laundry baskets are currently empty but that will only last a couple more hours. The dishwasher is never, ever free of either clean or dirty dishes. No sooner have I finished cooking dinner than we are cleaning up after it and, despite frequent vacuuming, the floor always, always has debris. It used to get me down, this endless cycle of doing and never being done.
Then, as my kids moved from babies to school age to high school, I began to see an end to this parental marathon. Instead of feeling elated, it scared me. College went from being a distant vision to a rapidly approaching reality. Friends warned high school would go by fast. They weren’t wrong. No sooner do the kids get their bearings than they are walking across the stage in a cap and gown.
College loomed large. I saw it as a big, black space of nothing. A wall of emptiness. My darlings would be gone — sucked into a vortex of life away from home and that would be that. No more dining room table covered in the detritus of homework. No more mountain of dirty clothes. No more overflowing grocery cart. It would also mean no more family dinners. No more spontaneous trips for frozen custard. No more visits to the pumpkin patch. The race and its component parts that seemed would never end would, in fact, be over.
It made me sad. I didn’t want to sustain the crazy pace indefinitely but I wanted more time. I enjoy their company. They make me laugh. I like them.
When the oldest left for school, I cried copious tears, but then something unexpected happened. He called us. Often. He didn’t fall headlong into a void of absenteeism. He was an active part of our family group text. He remained a regular part of our life despite being a day’s drive away. He still needed us and we are still parenting him. He is still my son. I get to walk with him as he moves toward adulthood and discovers his path.
I see his happiness. He is where he belongs and he is thriving. He is meeting people and doing things he could never have done had he stayed. I miss him and I miss how our family used to be, but I am also excited for what he and our family are becoming.
I realized college is not an end for me as a mother. It is the beginning of a new stage, and parenting is a series of stages. The kids pull away, as they must, and we have to let go. Sometimes it is a gentle tug of war and sometimes we have to pull back. Our kids learn to feed themselves, walk and dress themselves. We send them to kindergarten and our heart feels like breaking but it turns out OK. They learn to read, play sports and have friends. We watch and feel a little sad to not be their center anymore but it feels right. They discover their interests, hone their talents and dream of their future. We guide and nourish and pray. And pray. And pray.
The end game is that they are decent human beings who can take care of themselves and contribute to society. But, sometimes we wish we could get in the way-back machine and hold them to our hearts once again feeling their bellies move in and out with every breath and smelling their sweaty heads.
It’s a dance, not a marathon. A marathon ends after 26 miles, but the back and forth, the pulling near and pushing away continues. Sometimes we are dancing so fast it takes our breath away and we long for a rest. Other times, if we remember, we can pause and appreciate the moment we are in and thank God for it.
College is not an end to parenting; it’s just a different tempo. The music has changed and we are slowing down and that is OK. It is what should be.