This is my fourth "maternity leave" though I have only two children, boys 14 and 10. I went on leave this time because of third-grade spelling lists.
I got home early from work and my younger child asked me to go over his spelling words. I called them out, realizing that what had started out as a nightly ritual in September had evaporated. I hadn't seen a spelling word in months.
Later, I rummaged through the third-grader's backpack and pulled out all the previous spelling lists as well a bunch of small assignments I hadn't seen.
I was upset. Then I did the math and realized how quickly they grow up. "We only have six years left with him!" I told my husband when my firstborn turned 12. "Six years before he leaves for college and is out of the house."
While I realized that I didn't know as much about my kids' daily travails as I wanted to, I also realized how much I knew about and was involved with others whose lives were not my God-given responsibility.
In a small office, I had co-workers I cherished as friends and eagerly listened to, cajoled, advised and empathized with as they shared their personal and professional concerns and joys.
All the while, though, I was missing out on much of the daily drama of third and sixth grade. Who was getting detention every week? Who was not invited to the first boy-girl party? Whose best friend might move and leave the school?
These were the classroom concerns that shaped their moods on any given day, affected their attention and attitudes in school and at home. But I wasn't plugged in.
It's not like we were disconnected. At home, we asked about school and homework every day. We left work to attend school programs and teacher conferences. My husband and I spent all of our free time on them. We worshiped together, took them to the movies, museums and, of course, vacationed together. Missing from all that, however, was an intense, sustained interaction -- the weekdays were a blur because of work schedules that kept us away from home until 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
My first maternity leaves really were just childbirth absences. The ensuing lack of sleep and unrelenting chores and care-taking left me bent by exhaustion and sagging with depression. I went back to the office each time after six months -- to get a break.
This current leave -- I resigned my old job though I'm looking for part-time work again after writing a book -- and the 18 months I took off in 1993 truly are about mothering. They're about maintaining the intimate bond of the first years of life, positioning myself as a dominant role model on a daily basis, and filling young hearts and minds with the lessons many intend to impart but often neglect because of all the competing demands.
I take this leave as some baby boomers, long past worrying about day care and tantrums, are retreating from parenthood. The honeymoon with baby is over. You know it's true because all the mothers and fathers and grandparents who crowd preschools and primary grade events slack off at middle school and disappear by senior high.
There's no more urgency to "see him in his little costume," no scrambling to make sure there's film for the camera, no determination to take off in the middle of the day. We coo less and less that, "she's soooooo cute."
Not long ago a friend happily announced that she could schedule more business dinners or dinners with friends after work because her daughter was now 11. Triumphantly, this woman, whom I know as mentor and mother confessor to dozens of younger professionals and colleagues, said of her only child, "She can stay home alone now. She has a TV in her room."
The National Middle School Association describes the period between the ages of 10 and 15 as a significant time, when youngsters start making "major decisions about values, standards, attitudes and personal beliefs." It also calls this time of childhood, "the forgotten years."
The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of 90,000 7th- through 12th-graders released in 1997, revealed that adolescents with strong emotional attachments to their parents and teachers are much less likely to use drugs and alcohol, attempt suicide, engage in violence or become sexually active at an early age. The study does not suggest that they need the same round-the-clock care and attention as a newborn -- or that a parent should stay at home with the kids. It just means older children need their parents as much as younger children, but in different ways.
My oldest, for example, stands around me giggling, making up rap lyrics, repeating obnoxious jokes or mumbling things I can't even decipher. Sometimes, there is no conversation between us. I've learned to just smile as I read the paper or wash dishes -- with a patience unique to mothers. He's trying out his emerging social skills before the safest audience in the world.
I started adolescent leave with a list of "lessons" I want to get through before I have to go back to work, including proper manners, how to plan and prepare an entire meal, and the music and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. It's a time I hope to spend countering popular culture, molding their character and giving them the moral values and standards they'll need to get through the teenage years.
I can now work on this every single day . . . on the drive to or from school, at the doctor's office or waiting for our Chinese carry-out order.
I also want to do more things with them. So, for the 18 months I've been off, we've been to more museums, splash parks, skiing lodges, national parks, a wild pony swim at Assateague Island -- mostly day trips I always planned but never had the time to do.
As an established, independent editor and writer, I control my hours. So I'm always free in the afternoon to transport them to after-school and summer activities -- basketball and soccer practice, guitar and clarinet lessons, Junior Rangers, enrichment day camps. Before, they were limited to homework and TV at grandma's until they got picked up.
Ironically, now I can barely afford all the things we have the time to do together. So I've also learned to relax just being at home with them. We started reading novels aloud to each other, taking nature walks and going to the neighborhood community center and tennis court.
Mostly, we do a lot of talking. A lot of talking. About current events, about teachers and classmates, big projects at school, their likes and dislikes, how history repeats itself, what Jesus would do in certain situations, Democrats and Republicans, their ancestors and rap music versus the Motown Sound.
Taking adolescent leave is particularly difficult because it means trying to spend more time with children who are starting to break away. it requires knowing how to be a yo-yo, to let them push you away only to draw you near again.
I've learned to play the game, but many parents misread the cues. Because they're almost as big as we are (in many cases, bigger) and naturally need to be more independent, older kids can easily fool us into thinking that they don't need us around as much. The show of apathy about family life and disdain they seem bound to display toward us fuels this.
On the first day of school, for example, I'm directed to drive away after they get out of the car. I park anyway, and come in. The middle schooler gets up from his desk and comes into the hallway when he sees me there. "What are you doing out here? I told you you could go."
"I'm visiting with the other parents. Leave me alone and go back in class," I say. He stays close to my side while telling me how embarrassed he is that I'm hanging around him. "Everybody wouldn't know I'm you're mother if you weren't out here talking to me," I remind him.
Later, the boys who don't want to breathe the same air with me at school, compete furiously for my attention on the ride home.
"Mom, listen to this," says one.
"Stop cutting me off," says the other.
At home, I set out a box of photos and family memorabilia for the younger one's family history project. "But I need you to go through them with me," he says.
Then the child who does not want me to read what he writes, asks, "Mom, will you help me write an essay?" Now this is thrilling, and I see it all as a confirmation of my decision to take adolescent leave.
Finally, there is a quieting of the doubt that my children need me around more than they need me to make more money. The financial sacrifices my husband and I have made will have a big payoff.
We start discussing the assignment. Soon, he declares all of my suggestions dumb or ignores them altogether. He gathers his books, tells me he can't work with me just sitting there, and leaves the room.
I smile. I know that he'll be back. And for now, I can be there.
Leah Latimer is coauthor of "Higher Ground: Preparing African American Children for College" ($12, Avon Books).