If I recall correctly, it was the summer after my older son's ninth-grade year when I first noticed his leapfrogging me. My kids and I were on vacation at the Outer Banks, and my three children were fooling around in the pool -- playing tag, pulling each other under by the feet and generally annoying each other -- while I swam laps. As I finished and was resting at the side, I stole a mischievous glance at my eldest son, Kenneth, and challenged him: "How about a race to the other side?"
On the count of "three" we burst forward. I, with a rush of adrenaline, was absolutely certain I would beat my son when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him edging ahead. How could that happen? I had been swimming regularly for 25 years, while his only exercise was a leisurely one-mile walk back and forth to school each day. In no time we reached the other side. He had won.
As I toweled off and congratulated him on his victory, I felt both a pang of loss over my aging body and swell of anticipation at the leapfrogging that was beginning in our relationship. I knew, without question, that these little events would pile on with increasing frequency as each year marched by. The challenge to me -- and to all parents -- was to have the grace to accept and encourage them while privately mourning the loss that accompanies the realization that our children are surpassing us. Not that that is a negative thing. Once the first pang passed, the greater joy in seeing my son develop, master skills and outperform me made me glow with joy and pride.
It's not that I hadn't expected my son to top me in various ways. For some time he had had a precocious aptitude for computers. Since middle school he had been installing, troubleshooting and upgrading the Macintoshes owned by immediate and extended family members. And when his dad moved out around his 12th birthday, my son naturally slid into the role of home repairer and maintenance trouble-shooter. Over the years I have called on him to fix leaky toilets, repair broken latches, trim hedges and maintain the lawn. He does most with aplomb, while I rejoice. These are tasks I have no interest or desire in mastering. It is a relief to off-load some of the responsibilities I have as a single mom of three, to a growing young man who benefits from the boost to his self esteem that comes with being a valued and contributing member of the household.
But when he and I travel the same paths, the issues of pride, competition and loss become somewhat murky. The school year after our race in the Outer Banks, my son joined the high school swim team and within weeks was swimming circles around me: doing dives and flip turns that I never attempted, and swimming with form and speed that I never mastered. Even while I reveled in his abilities, I felt the creep of time.
I felt the same spark this fall as I observed my son's progress in his piano playing. He is in his tenth year of piano study; the same number of years that I took lessons. Earlier this year, as he was learning Handel's Fantasia in C, I caught myself humming it under my breath. I wanted to play it. With the same confidence I had felt pushing off for our race in the swimming pool three years before, I sat down to sight-read the music. I had always been able to pick out my children's pieces without much effort. But this time, the learning didn't come so easily. I peered at the music to find the notes, struggled with the tricky fingering and felt frustrated when I ended up having to learn each hand separately before I could play them together. A couple of months into this process, my son can still play the piece with greater finesse than I.
I imagine it is normal to feel the mixed emotions I do about my son's talents and achievements. Men and women are topping out in their careers just when their sons and daughters are logging in their first major accomplishments. It can hurt to feel left behind. It takes a wise and secure adult to revel in his child while silently acknowledging and mourning his or her own losses without belittling or holding back offspring -- or, contrarily, pushing a child to achieve to make up for a parent's missed accomplishments.
Thank goodness, I think, I am my son's mother and not his father. Sometimes it is harder to honor boundaries with children of the same sex. So I prepare myself as my daughter, Diana, and my son Connor edge up behind him. By then, I hope, I will have grown used to these little leapfrogging events, and instead of looking to recapture my youth, will look forward to the benefits of becoming a sage woman.