Phases of the Mom

Photo Sarah Whiting

The arts-and-crafts tote overflowed with cylinders of petrified Play-Doh, crispy-bristle paint brushes, and Elmer’s glue bottles with clogged applicator tips. Underneath it sat a stack of spiral notebooks with homework from previous years: simple fractions, facts about fossils and chlorophyll, vocabulary words neatly written on blue lines. Star Wars characters were sporadically doodled in the margins.

None of its contents had been touched in years. Yet the very second I tipped it upside down into the garbage dumpster — unwittingly blasting a flume of silver glitter into the garage ceiling — I felt deep, aching sadness and enormous regret.

When did fuzzy pipe-cleaners become nostalgia-worthy? How did bags of nubby crayons and crumbled watercolor paints become worthy of my emotions? I am not even on Pinterest!

Of course, it was about something else entirely. My son has advanced to the next phase of his life.

He relegated his Curious George book collection to the basement to make space for Peg Kehret and Rick Riordan hardcovers; he prefers a frappuccino to a hot chocolate; he listens to Ozzy Osbourne, Johnny Cash, the Beatles; he uses the verb “hang out” instead of “play” with his friends; he requests gift cards for his birthday, not Nerf guns and Legos; he routinely passes on puppet shows at the library in favor of watching YouTube. On his iPhone. With the Tesla screensaver. Sigh.

My baby, a four-and-a-half pound preemie, has grown up overnight! But evidence strongly suggests he is still my baby. When does that classification end? He is terrified of lightning storms, bumblebees, the dark. He cannot fall asleep at night without his Lovey lamb, once white as snow and now a dingy gray.

How did I get emotionally Velcroed to a stupid arts-and- crafts bin? Am I simply experiencing the normal sorrow from letting go? Has parenthood, as it did with my own mother, become my sole identity?

Am I feeling insecure in that role as my child’s dependence on me lessens, fearful of what might happen when it disappears altogether?

When I was pregnant, complete strangers winked at me as they passed. “Enjoy! They grow up fast,” they said. And how right they were. When your eyes are too close to a wheel in motion, you do not see how hurriedly it is spinning; it appears as if it is not moving at all.

More than any other storybook, I cherished “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. I remember sitting in a rocking chair cuddling with him — his chubby, uncoordinated palms batted at my cheeks as I read the famous line, “forever and ever my baby you’ll be.”

Even though there is no disputing that “he grew and he grew and he grew,” I still recognize a little boy inside of him. At the beach, I watch as he lowers his muscular, lean torso and steadies his forearm onto his knee. The split second the lifeguard’s whistle blows, he sprints across the sand and is nearly always the first kid back into the water. And when we take our dog for a walk, he often grabs my hand.

Just as the moon has phases, the same is true of a child. In the beginning he is full — bold, open, confident, unabashed. As he matures he slips into the crescent, quarter, and gibbous phases and only reveals the slivers of himself he feels inclined to share. Then it seems life goes dark in the form of the new moon. It is still there, of course, but you cannot see it at all.

My own mom frequently said she knew I was growing up when I stopped holding her hand and realized I had become a woman when I reached for her again.

I dread the day when my son lets go of me — in more ways than one — because that means I will have to do the same. Never will I be ready.

But phases change, they always do. In my glitter-free house, I will wait for the next.

Jillian Van Hefty (she/her) is a writer from Waconia, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and emotional support Keurig. She is a 2022 grand prize winner of the A Hotel Room of One’s Own: The Erma Bombeck | Anna Lefler Humorist-in-Residence Program.