I’ll never forget that day and that moment. My baby was in his bouncy chair, looking up at the brightly colored mobile toys above him, clumsily reaching out for them. He was cooing and smiling so much that his little legs kicked with excitement and caused the chair to bounce more, multiplying his delight.
I laughed a little myself and said, “what do you see, Jack?” but he only gave me a polite side-glance before shifting his full focus back to the mobile toys. As I observed his enjoyment, I smiled and also felt a tiny tear run down my cheek.
I remember thinking that until that moment I had been the soul source of his entertainment for his entire lifetime! Keeping in mind that his entire lifetime was a mere few months at this point, my milk alone was his nourishment, my touch his comfort and my voice his point of familiarity. My womb had housed him for 40 weeks where I had talked to him and played music for him. During the pregnancy, I felt like he and I had our own running list of inside jokes and intimacies. He gave me kicks as signs of gratitude for the orange juice or chocolate I had just consumed. He had been my sidekick for business trips and family vacations.
I was his mother and he was mine, together we were intertwined. But watching him with the mobile toys that day, I realized that while I was his mother, he was not mine. A friend once told me that our children are not ours. She’s right. Motherhood by instinct allows us to love our children with a fierceness that is so intense that it is incomprehensible to imagine losing them. Yet there is an ironic cruelty to the role of motherhood because if we do it well, we raise our children to leave us and be their own independent selves.
This afternoon, now eleven years into motherhood, I had another similar and memorable moment. The baby who was once amused by the mobile toys is now a 5th grader and obsessed, as all of his classmates are, with Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty. He has convinced my 7-year-old and 4-year-old daughters that they too love the putty. They even set up a lemonade stand last week to earn money for the putty.
They’ve been saving and talking about this for a while, discussing the putty color options and Jack providing his recommendation on which putty they should choose. After school today they carefully pooled their allowance and lemonade money and realized they had enough to each purchase a putty container of their own. They asked if we could go to the very tiny toy store in our very tiny town to buy the putty. With a great deal of fanfare, I said sure. They emptied their piggy banks and excitedly grabbed their wallets, eagerly chatting and skipping their way to the car. Their hearts were soaring and their minds racing, I could just tell.
When I pulled up to the store I decided to let them go in by themselves. We know the owners and I could park right in front of the door, and as I mentioned before, it is a tiny little store. Plus it would be a good experience for them to work this purchase out by themselves, just as they had worked out the lemonade stand by themselves.
As I put the car into park, I had a second thought and almost joined them. Not because I didn’t think they could make the purchase by themselves, but because I wanted to see how it would unfold. I wondered if my youngest daughter would decide she wanted to buy other things and throw a fit. I was curious how my middle daughter would calculate how far her $5 would take her or if my son would allow the girls to choose their own putty colors after all. I knew it was really a good opportunity for them to have this independence and make the purchase themselves. But I really wished I could be a fly on the wall. In fact, I really wish I could be a fly on the wall for their entire lives!
Just a few minutes later when the three of them marched out of the store with their wallets, and their bags and their pride, I had a strange, but good, feeling of not being needed entirely anymore. It wasn’t dissimilar to that moment years ago when my son, then a baby, was entertained by the mobile toys and simply gave me a side-glance.
As I sat in the car and looked at the three of them standing there on the sidewalk on the other side of the door, I got a glimpse into their lives together in the future. It was a bit of a sneak peak into their sibling relationship, independent of me. While the feeling was accompanied by a slight heartache, it was overall surprisingly kind of settling and very nice.
I can feel that as they get older, my children need me less and less. Or rather they need me in different ways. They don’t need me to hold their hand across the street or to pack their lunch. But they do need to me to give them my trust and to build their confidence. By allowing them to go into that store and make their own purchase today I gave them both.
These kids make me smile and make me cringe a million times in a day! They’re my favorite people and frustrate me to no end. I love them more than anything so of course it’s fun to see them in action. Watching them interact with the world shows me the results of the lessons I’ve taught them and the tools I’ve given them.
But as a mother I know I won’t be there for everything, and I shouldn’t be. And while that fact breaks my heart a bit, I understand that there are memories, relationships and stories in their lives that are theirs, and theirs alone.
There is this selflessness to motherhood that allows me to believe that I am theirs, but they are not mine. I’m giving my children what they need to be their own people. And knowing this is the best Mother’s Day gift of all.
This post originally appeared on Today Parenting Team’s blog.