Our oldest son Jamie started Kindergarten this fall. He took to it easily, showing far more confidence than he had just a year before when he started a new preschool program. My feelings were more complicated. I was excited for him thinking about all of the wonderful new experiences he'd enjoy as he started school. Yet, at the same time, I felt a sadness. How could five years have gone by so quickly? The start of "real" school was a signal that our first-born son was moving farther away from us and becoming more independent. I walked back home from his bus-stop on the first day of school with tears brimming in my eyes.
My husband and I often feel this emotional struggle between excitement as our children meet the next milestone in their lives and sadness as another piece of their childhood is left behind. It's like a constant pull - wanting them to hurry up and grow so we can do more things together as a family and yet regretting that they seem to grow and change so quickly.
Hearing our sons' verbal skills develop and grow has certainly filled us with these mixed feelings. We were delighted as Jamie's vocabulary increased by leaps and bounds and he was able to communicate with us. What a relief and joy compared to the days of trying to decipher grunts and cries! Then, one day, we realized that somewhere along the line, he had learned to say "excuse me" almost perfectly, and we lamented the loss of his adorable earlier attempts which sounded something like "scoobies." Similarly, "sgebby" was replaced by "psaghetti", and I suppose that one day soon he'll be asking for spaghetti like a grown-up. Fortunately, his younger brother recently started to say, "I wub you" in that adorable toddler way that just melts your heart.
This tug of emotions is very evident at these earlier ages. Both of our boys were slow to get their first teeth. As our youngest son Craig approached 14 months old with no sign of a single tooth, we were understandably anxious for this development to occur. We were tired of cutting his food into tiny pieces and starting to get a little worried that he'd never have any teeth at all. Then that first tooth appeared, followed quickly by ten more. All of a sudden, we were nostalgic for that adorable toothless smile. Craig seemed to be leaving babyhood behind. I can't bear to think that someday those soft, pudgy cheeks will be gone!
We had heard that it's common for parents to "baby" their youngest child, trying to prolong his baby-ness. We didn't quite understand this at the time and told ourselves, "We'd never do that." Then, our youngest son began to look as if he needed his first haircut. His soft, fine hair was growing down his neck in little curls. We scheduled haircuts for the rest of us but just couldn't bear to cut off those little baby curls just yet. Of course, we eventually did get his hair cut, but we both felt a small loss as another sign of babyhood fell to the floor.
Despite these tugs of nostalgia, I often find myself dreaming of the day when the boys will be a bit older and can do more with us. We love outdoor activities, and though we've included the boys in camping, hiking, and canoeing since they were infants, we're still limited somewhat. It will be so nice when we can take longer hikes and resume more extensive backpacking trips. We certainly weren't sorry to say good-bye to the stage where Craig screamed during every moment of a ride in our canoe.
I can't wait to share some of my favorite childhood books with them to introduce them to the magic worlds of C.S. Lewis, Kenneth Graham, and Madelaine L'Engle. We've already started to read some of our old favorites to our oldest son, now that he'll listen to more complex books without pictures on every page. It's so much fun to re-read these classics and share in his excitement as he begs us to read another chapter before bed. As avid readers, we're also eager for our children to learn how to read themselves, so they can experience for themselves the wonders of the literary world.
I'm also waiting to share my favorite games with my children. I come from a game-playing family and my husband doesn't enjoy games, so I can't wait for our boys to be old enough to sit at the table and play Monopoly, Clue, and even Scrabble with me. Oh, what fun it will be to move beyond Candyland and Dinosaur Bingo! But then again, what if they no longer want to play with me when they get older? I've read all the articles and heard all the horror stories about adolescents. How will I bear it if my boys are embarrassed by my presence among their friends? Right now, my husband and I are their favorite playmates. Sure, it's an exhausting and tiresome role sometimes, but think of the alternative.
At 2 and 5 years old, our boys still love to be with us. They freely hug and kiss us in public. My 5-year old will still take my hand when we're walking together. We've all heard about or witnessed those teen-agers who would rather die than be seen getting a hug from their parents. The frequent, spontaneous shows of affection we now enjoy are wonderful beyond words, but I have to admit that I am looking forward to being able to do dishes without a 25-pound weight hanging onto one leg.
The conflict between autonomy and dependence is not relegated just to parents; our children feel it, too. When Jamie was two years old, we went on a weekend camping trip. We spent one morning hiking, and, for the first time, Jamie hiked the entire 1 ½ miles on his own, without asking to be carried in the backpack carrier. Some much older boys ran past as he was struggling to climb up a large rock. One of them yelled out, "Hey, big guy! You rock climbing?" I'll never forget Jamie's look of pride at being recognized by the big boys as he replied, "Yeah!" Later that same day, though, Jamie crawled into my lap in our tent and said, "Rock-bye-baby, Mommy." I rocked him in my arms and sang Rock-A-Bye-Baby to him, as he snuggled against me, reassured that he was still little enough to be rocked.
Infants are in a class by themselves when it comes to the pull between growing up and staying little. There's something so incredible and wondrous about holding a tiny baby. We often watch our boys running around in constant motion and can't believe that they were once so small and helpless. We page through old photo albums or watch our home videos and say to each other, "Can you believe he was ever that tiny?" At the same time, we also remember the torturous sleepless nights and the agony of listening to our baby cry and not knowing what was wrong. And, as all new parents, even as we were awed by the beauty of that tiny infant, we were eagerly anticipating each development "He smiled! He's about to crawl! When will he try standing on his own?"
Even now, with our two year-old son, we're torn between wanting him to grow up and wishing he'd stay babyish a little longer. Often, we're thinking only of the sheer exhaustion from taking care of him: the chaotic meals eaten in gulps before he begins to struggle to get out of his highchair, the long-drawn out bedtime rituals when we just want to have a moment to ourselves. But then again, how I'll miss rocking with him at night, singing lullabies as he rests his little head against me and presses his soft arms around my neck. What if the day comes when our boys don't want us to read or sing to them at bedtime anymore?
And maybe that is what's at the heart of these conflicting feelings. Underlying everything else, there's a fear that someday they might not need you anymore. Despite the glow of pride as they learn new skills and enjoy new experiences, there's a feeling of dread that your precious children are moving steadily away from you. The worst part is that it's true. Right from birth, our children begin a constant journey to grow and develop and become independent. I guess the best we can do, as parents, is to recognize and nurture both feelings: to encourage our children when they're ready to move forward and to be there for them when they need the love and security of their family. It's trite but true that they grow up so fast. I plan to savor every moment. Now, I better get going - my presence is requested in a pretend game of knights and pirates.