The summer isn't as young as it used to be. The seasons are getting set to change again. I feel the earth tilting. The fireflies are gone; the big, beautiful luna moths are out. The sun rises a little slower than it used to. A few leaves are turning yellow and flitting to the ground, the first acorns are falling. Ashlee and I took our kids and made our annual pilgramage to the zoo, like we have for the last 3 or 4 summers. Only this summer, you could tell the kids aren't as young as they used to be either, or us. Like Fleetwood Mac sings, "children get older, I'm getting older too."
There's a high ropes course at the zoo. It'd been there for two years or so, each time we walked by it, Connor would say, "one day I'll be brave enough to go on that ropes course. Soon, I'll get big enough." It goes up 40 feet in the air with three different layers, a zipline at the top. It's built over a playground so parents can crane their necks up and watch helplessly as their kids navigate obstacles they can only coach them through from a distance over the shouts of a dozen other parents. The bigger kids asked, begged, pleaded, "please, can we go?"
I thought, "is he big enough for this?" The smiling giraffe measure at the ticket counter assured me, he was big enough for this. So we coughed up the money, signed some waivers, watched them get harnessed in, and then settled in at the playground below to watch them be brave. The smaller ones flitted around us on the playground. But even they seemed bigger. The Atlanta zoo in August is always brimful of sweaty, red-faced, overtired toddlers and their pregnant mothers in yoga pants. Sometimes grandparents. A smattering of tourists. But most of the population of zoo-visitors are young mothers. That's been my crowd for the last 3 years. Suddenly this year, it wasn't me. I wasn't a strollerpusher. Somehow, I'd leveled up.
I found myself giving the young parents a look that I always loved getting from more seasoned parents when I was out with my small children. You know the one, the "oh, honey, I have BEEN there" look. There's a smile behind their eyes, they are aware of you but aren't imposing on you, definitely not judging you. They just have this knowing look that acknowledges and validates the struggles and triumphs of young parenthood: the exhaustion, exasperations, heart-bursting joy. I've always loved that silent camaraderie of veteran parents to the young strollerpushers who braved the zoo so close to naptime. I passed out that look like those people who like to wear shirts that say "free hugs" on busy street corners in the city.
The season of my motherhood was beginning to change. I could feel it. Like the summer, it wasn't as young as it used to be. Above me, the kids climbed and balanced and focused. One of them balked and started to sob a little halfway up. There isn't much you can do once they're strapped in halfway up except shout things like, "You won't fall. Show me how brave you are. You have to keep going, I can't rescue you." You are nearly helpless there on the ground.
This, I realized, is what's next for me, for us, for me and my boys. I will be shouting at them from across a great distance as they get ready to launch themselves, figure out how to balance themselves, thrill at the freedoms of not being quite so young. It's the goal of parenthood, to raise them to be kind, independent, responsible, thoughtful contributors and creators. With my 8 year-old 40 feet above me, walking on a tightrope, I felt what's coming for me in the next decade ahead: fear, powerlessness, shining pride. I could do nothing, I couldn't go up and rescue him, disentangle him, choose the path for him, carefully monitor his next stop. I could only shout some advice and encouragement and hope he'd listen to me, make sure the other ones didn't do anything too stupid.
This feeling of anxious helplessness mixed up with soaring pride is the goal of healthy motherhood. And it is a heady combo.
When we started our family, I never had flashes of insight like this—of what's coming next, what the next season will feel like. Between the sleep deprivation and the constant needs of young children that just peck you to brink of exhaustion every 3 hours on endless loop for years, I don't think I had a complete thought until last month.
These seasons, the change comes on slowly until it really starts and you notice. Maybe that's what I'm better at, noticing. Like the veteran parents who gave me those encouraging nods when my children were still in strollers and diapers, they noticed me. This must be a gift of coming through the season of having young children, you have some bandwidth back to notice things, people around you. You've accrued experience and empathy and you can be kind.
The kind notice of a stranger is like waters in the desert for a young parent. Or for anyone who's entering a new stage of life.
Ashlee's son recently announced he was going to begin calling her "mom," not "mommy." He had an air of unassailable finality about the whole thing. Her heart broke a little bit. The changing of seasons is always bittersweet.
"The kids are getting older," she sighed.
"And so are we."
Just then her son heard his sister's voice break in fear, again, and he doubled back and to coach her through an obstacle. He's growing kind and capable. He's noticing more too.
We're all still growing up.
Connor finally disembarked from the ropes course after I shouted for him to come down, Josie really did need a nap.
He was shining with pride and excitement, he did it. He really did it. Just him, not anyone else.
This next season of motherhood is coming, I can see it, feel it. Like the tilt of the earth, the change of the play of light through the trees out my window.
I am both terrified and elated.