“Mommy, will you cuddle with me before I go to sleep?” a quiet voice asks after I make the nightly trumpet to march to bed. Stunned, I turn slowly to see my 8-year-old, not my almost-5, awaiting my answer.
I bombard him regularly with unsolicited hugs, kisses, and even trapped snuggles, but, man, it’s been a long time since Jack has asked to spend time with me that didn’t include a screen or soccer ball.
“Absolutely!” I respond, trying to control my shock and joy. When I lie down next to him, we start chatting about friends, his soccer game, and school. He wriggles his head onto my shoulder and hugs me. I am transported back to holding him close when he was a baby, so little, so dependent, so my everything.
As we talk, his 7-year-old brother, Rhett, climbs down the bunkbed ladder to join us. He squirms his way up the other side of the bed and squeezes me. In the dark, I smile and pull them both a little closer, their arms and legs dangling all over me and the bed. I listen to their breathing, heavy and constant. I feel calm, cozy, and oh-so-loved. A moment of bliss, to be sure.
Most nights are NOT like this. There’s usually a lot of frustrated yelling that sounds something like: “It is time for bed! No, don’t tell me you are hungry NOW! That should have happened 15 minutes ago during your show. Stop playing with the LEGOS. Did you brush your teeth? No, I’m not smelling your breath…brush your teeth and GET IN BED!!!” Or, “Why do I have to go to bed? It’s SO early! Everyone else in my class has a way later bedtime! It’s NOT fair!” On this night, our end-of-the-day meltdown is replaced by a bedtime cuddle sandwich. I try to be in the moment, soak up every bit of the sweetness and brand it into my memory forever. I know my opportunities for this are numbered.
In the past few months this realization has begun to hit home fast and hard. My boys are growing up. Beyond catching up to me in height and eating everything in sight all day long, I can sense them both becoming individuals, embracing interests and silliness and mannerisms of their friends. Caring about what they wear, requesting songs I have never heard, using phrases foreign to me, and spouting facts I haven’t taught them. I no longer am the center nor the source of their knowledge and norm. Jack, especially, is becoming his own person. Once my child I knew to be my rule follower is clowning around in class and telling me white lies. He’s also the boy who chooses to sacrifice his favorite time of the day—recess—to sit on the sidelines to keep his injured friend company. Oh, the disappointment…and the pride!
He’s at that age where being seen too close to Mom and Dad isn’t the coolest. When he’s supposed to be spreading his wings and starting to fly a bit more on his own. He doesn’t want to need me. I get that, and understand now I can guide him only through reflection and my example. Ultimately, when it’s decision time, his perception, ego, and values will sway him in that moment. Hopefully my incessant chorus of “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” and “Always do your best,” will echo through his deliberations. Hopefully, he will be brave and choose to do the right thing, even if it is unpopular or uncool. Hopefully, he will learn from the mistakes he will inevitably make. Hopefully, he will know that my love for him is unequivocal and never-ending, and he can always come to me to talk, for help, or just to cuddle and be still, regardless of what he chooses.
I am reminded of this strengthening independence and my waning influence every morning when I take the boys to their schools. As I drop off Jack, then Rhett, I grab their hands to offer a gentle squeeze goodbye. On my lucky days, they sidle up to me with a quick hug and kiss before they flounder out of the car. In the few seconds while they climb out, I tell them I love them and urge them to do the right thing and be their best selves for the day. I try to pack an entire day of mothering love and lessons into that sliver of time. Jack hurriedly shuts the door, my voice still trailing. Rhett stares at me with his big blue eyes. He blows me kisses and tells me he loves me, too. I watch them both—Jack scurries and Rhett saunters—along the sidewalks toward their buildings and away from me. My heart sinks, and I miss them immediately. I don’t want to let them go. Yet, every day they take another step away toward who they are meant to become.