We are crossing the intersection together. My hand reflexively reaches out to her as if she were about to dash mindlessly in front of the next car. The girl by my side recognizes this familiar gesture. Mocking and humoring me, she takes my hand as we cross the street.
I have been a mother now for almost 17 Mother's Days. The daughter I am walking with is just short of being a woman, a voting, consenting, certifiable adult. She crosses oceans without my hand on her shoulder. It is time for me to outgrow this habit of protectiveness. Time to outgrow the superstition that mothers have the power to shield their children.
I have the sense that I am going through a stage. I tell this to my own mother who has been through it before me. I wish there were a name for this time of motherlife. We divide childhood into stages but, in some false economy of language, we have only one word for the mother of babies and teen-agers and adults.
We treat all mothers as a mass market, rather like the cards that now fill the shelves, addressed simply, interchangeably, to Mom. In our vocabulary we harbor the out-of-date notion that a child grows up while a mother stays the same, a permanent fixture of certified adulthood, performing the same skills in the same way, year after year, for infant and adolescent. But it doesn't work that way.
The stage I am in requires skill at letting go. It does not come altogether naturally to all of us. Women are, after all, wrenched into motherhood abruptly with that awesome birth day gift of a dependent. We are expected to come equipped with emotional superglue to insure our children's survival.
With difficulty sometimes, we begin motherhood by bonding our own life to those of our children. Then, year by year, we are told to let the bond grow more and more elastic. In an earlier stage of motherhood, when my deepest desire was to have a single, uninterrupted bath, I had no idea how tricky, how delicate, this letting go would be.
Lining one shelf in my office is a batch of new books, all devoted to the subject of raising teen-agers. If there were a single subtitle for them, it would read: "How to Control Your Teen-ager." In the tough-love vernacular of the times, the mother of young people is told to keep the lid on, hold tight the reins of authority, ride them through this threatening terrain. The books read as if teen-age was a variation on the terrible twos, as if 18 could be postponed indefinitely.
I don't see mothering quite like that, never did. These are the years when we slowly, carefully, transfer power OVER our children TO our children. At best, when it works, the controls aren't wrested from us in some primal struggle between the generations, but are shifted. At best, each right is traded fairly for a growing proof of responsibility.
But I know it doesn't happen easily or gleefully. Growing up is no easier the second time around. Mother and child both trip over the ambivalence that litters the passageway. There is both pride and a palpable sense of loss for mothers who watch their children take charge. For the young, a heady sense of independence is often dotted with nostalgia for childhood.
Even at the cusp of adulthood it is never entirely clear that our children are really ready to go or that we are really ready to let go. If little is said about children at the cusp of adulthood, even less is said about the 17th, 20th, 30th Mother's Day in a woman's life.
I cannot fully chart the terrain of this mothering time. My sentiments will not fit on a card. But I do know that at the other end of the stage I am going through, most mothers hope they will have enabled rather than prevented this growing up. We want to be like the mothers we want to have: trusted resources in our children's lives.
We want to be the home they can come to, the base they can touch, the love they can count on, the place where they feel good about themselves. What is left at the end of this stage is, after all, a relationship. Even a friendship.
We cannot get there without letting go. But sometimes, if we are good enough friends with our children, we can still hold hands crossing the street.