It’s a few weeks after Mother’s Day. This year, for the first time oddly enough, I am tearfully taking stock. I am sitting next to my oldest son at 6:56 am on an Amtrak train headed home. I made good on the promise, and for the first time in his 18 years, I am 100% sure I got it right.
As Dr. Carol tilted this just born swaddled baby up so we could finally check each other out, I did two things. First, I silently appreciated the doctor, not only for the safe delivery but for the fact that she gave me the heads up about what the birth canal actually does to the baby’s head and face. Second, I looked into my first born son’s bruised, swollen tearful face and made a promise. I would do the best I could. I knew better than to promise perfect. Even if I had perfect in me, which I did not, that too would have been off.
Over the years I got a few things wrong and, forever tough on myself, I focus on the losses more than the wins.
There was the time he, though belted in his car seat managed to open the car door while we were driving. My fault really, and I yelled. There were also all of the “extrovert-mom” to “introvert-son” moments. Me, begging him to share … something anything, please just throw me a bone. Him looking at me bewildered … what about the fact that he was a teenager did I not understand? And then there was the difference in our understanding of time. For me if you’re not early you’re late … and he has his own internal sense of time.
I insisted on Kumon, which he hated until he came to recognize and appreciate not only his facility with math but near perfect SAT scores.
We went to church and became a part of a community, and even though he declared himself an atheist, I can’t help but think he has learned a lot about community if not from his time in the pews than from serving on his mission trips to a reservation in South Dakota and flood-ravaged New Jersey.
For the first time though, I stuck my neck out …. this time further than I ever have before. I begged him to delay college, get off of the treadmill and to learn a little about the world and his place in it. This was both in sync and out of character for my family. Education is in our bones. My grandmother, an African American woman born in 1900, earned her BA from Livingstone College …. my mother has a Ph.D. in education from the University of Chicago, and I too work in the educational field.
While my family’s focus on being educated was important, I could see that high school and the drive toward college had been exhausting and that pushing through to college (while possible) might only serve to compound the fatigue. I had done a student exchange in high school, and my sister had taken a year off in college so … in May of my son’s senior year, by all accounts way too late, I began simultaneously selling the idea of a gap year to my husband and introducing it to my son. It began subtly. Did you know that a gap year is less expensive than college? Oh look, Malia Obama, is taking a gap year! Hey, this article says that students who take a gap year have a higher graduation rate and better grades. Given the fact that a lot of programs were filling up or full, I found a gap year consultant, Interim Programs, (not cheap, but worth it). I wanted to make sure we weren’t inadvertently grinding my “extrovert axes” … but were instead focused on him and his choices for the year. My only rule was that he be safe, something that she could not guarantee in the United States, no less Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, or Bolivia.
The Super Bowl
Yesterday his year ended, and I met up with his group for their post- trip presentation. Almost immediately, I could see it. Somewhere in the Uyuni Salt Flats or the Inca Trail or someplace else, he found a maturity, a new comfort, and understanding of himself and an independence, all the details of which I will never know. He just knew more. More about the world, the United States (and the absurdity of our cereal aisle) more about the context and, most important, more about himself. I could not help it. Gingerly, I tried to get as much information (and confirmation as I could). Spreading my queries out a bit, I asked him over and over— the year was amazing? And the right thing to do? And he was happy he did it? And he would do it again? And he is glad I suggested it? And would he suggest it to his younger brother? I got the validation I needed (a few times). This wasn’t just a “mothering win,” it was the Super Bowl.
Passing the Baton
My son spent the night after the presentation sleeping at a youth hostel. Understandably, he wanted to take the time to say goodbye to his gap year Thinking Beyond Borders family. I handed him his ticket and silently worried about whether he would make the 6:20 am train.
Oddly enough the fact that my son’s sense of time led him to beat me to the train station on the morning after his presentation made me cry. While I realized gleefully that the victory laps (and presumably losses) were no longer mine, I also understood that I was passing the baton and that a significant portion of my motherhood journey, at least with this young man, was behind me.