When it comes to the firsts, I’ve never been the best mom. Adam’s first word escapes me, as do Nicholas’s and Erin’s. I know it was ma-ma or da-da, or some other monosyllabic chant that we appropriated and celebrated as an intentional word. But the details? Buried somewhere in memory, along with countless other things I failed to note in the almost-empty baby books that sit on my closet shelf.
The date each rolled over and started to alternate between belly and back? Foggy blips. The day each took his or her first step? I can’t recall the day of the week or the time, though I have a vivid picture in my head of each tiny foot, each facial expression. I remember the jubilation after; the picking up and the hugging and the twirling around and the ‘oh what a big boy/big girl’ refrain I chanted as I squeezed and held each one before putting each back on his or her own feet, hoping for a repeat.
I have some pictures of first days at school, but not many. Some years I worked in an office, and couldn’t be there even when I wanted to be. Others they protested too much or ran too fast, and I was either too teary or too depressed or too whatever to protest harder.
Today, though, I’m wrapped up in wondering when a mom stops counting firsts and instead just wishes for the privilege of witnessing something really special in the life of someone she adores. Today my big guy moves into a dorm room in New York. A dorm room I’ve never seen, on a campus I’ve never been, in a city I’ve never visited, in a state eighteen hours away.
Technically he’s a grown up now, so whether or not I’m there shouldn’t matter. His dad is with him, so he’s not alone, though even if he was I know he’d be just fine. So here I sit, on an otherwise nondescript Tuesday morning, sipping tepid coffee with too much cream and constantly checking my phone and hoping for pictures and wondering what his new world is like, all the while chiding myself for the choice to divorce his dad all those years ago, wondering if I’d stayed a wife—no matter how miserable—if I’d be standing with him on campus right now, feeling small in the shadows but mighty as a mom, ushering him into this next chapter of life.
I remind myself that this isn’t about me, not even one tiny bit. It’s his time, his new adventure, and about that I’m giddy. Crazy proud, and excited for him. But I’m still angry. Mad that I’m not there. Furious that his other parent picks and chooses if and when he wants to step up, and that the moment he picked was the one I’d been looking forward to for what seems like forever. Livid that the only way for me to be there was to say he couldn’t, and in doing that I’d do what I’d promised myself I’d never do to my children: pit one of their parents against the other, at their expense. And it’s exhausting, this up and down roller coaster of giddy and pissed off, proud and wistful, happy and tearful. And yes, I can feel that all at once, because the emotions don’t negate each other. Instead, it seems as if they feed off of each other, mostly coexisting in some weird kind of limbo but occasionally all fighting for space in the front. Call it the roller coaster ride of being a single mom. We multi-task at everything, including emotions.
Today this single parenting thing feels like a vindictive, mean little bastard of a mirage. Just when I think I’ve got it down, that I’ve found a balance and steadied my feet, it knocks me down and dances around me, cackling its sinister laugh, as I struggle to get back up and try again. It plays Russian roulette with its favorite bargaining chips: money, time, attention, money, money, time and in this instance, it’s somehow loaded all.of.them and shot at once, all the while sing-songing a version of ‘if you’d just been a better wife/mommy/mom/person, everything would be perfect. But you weren’t. So it’s not.’
On this ordinary, quiet, dull morning double digit years since I’ve witnessed a first step and welcomed a toothless, smiling, joyful baby into my arms for some mama love, about the only thing I know for sure is that there’s no such thing as perfect. I know that even if I’d made different choices once or twice or every time I was charged to choose something or the other, there would still be tears, and anger and disappointment. But damn it, today I’m missing a big first step. One that’s supposed to be in my photo albums later: him standing in front of his dorm, rolling his eyes because I insisted on pictures. Him standing in his empty dorm room, surrounded by Rubbermaid totes and not-so-secretly wishing I’d go take a walk or something so he could do his thing. One that’s supposed to assure me that after all the picking up and twirling around and hugging and hugging and hugging and putting him back down on solid, steady and ready feet, that it’s time for me to go.
This post also appears on Back to Allen