Mother’s Day is just around the corner, and it has me thinking about obsolescence.
The idea that a measure of your success as a mother is how unnecessary you render yourself to your children as they grow up is not original. One of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, has mined this territory beautifully.
But as my boys, who entered the world two months early, frail and utterly dependent not just on their parents but also on medical technology, stand on the cusp of adulthood, I find myself thinking not so much about the second Sunday in May as about the other 364 days of the year.
When our children are young, we yearn for the days when they will be able to do for themselves: Dress themselves, brush their own teeth, tie their shoes. As responsible, loving mothers, we know that these are life skills they should master on their way to independence. As stressed-out, fatigued mothers, we’re just glad that each represents one less thing that we have to do.
We don’t see each small milestone as a step closer to obsolescence, but that’s what each truly is. One day, they are pedaling a two-wheeler for the first time; the next, they are asking for the car keys. Except not really; those steps are separated by 10 years for most of us — allowing us to regulate our breathing, grow accustomed to the idea of our birds leaving the nest.
But that march toward independence is inexorable; and at some point, like riding a bike downhill, the pace quickens until everything seems to be happening at hyper-speed.
My sons turned 17 in November, and I feel like we’ve been riding that bike downhill since then. Something about 17 seems so much older than 16. In the days after the Boston Marathon bombings, we — like everyone in the nation — speculated around the dinner table about who was responsible. “You don’t want it to be state-sponsored terrorism,” I said, knowing that they will register for selective service in six months.
Because my boys have always gone to Catholic school, I have always driven them to school. Until last month. Since the start of the school year, I have made Christopher drive to school with me in the passenger seat. I told him that if he drove safely with me in the car, he could begin driving himself and his brother to school after spring break. I really think I thought spring break would never come. But it did. And when Christopher pulled out of the driveway and headed off, I had to look my own obsolescence square in the face.
There are other, smaller signs. I haven’t helped with homework in ages. They wear clunky class rings that mark an ageless rite of passage. We may travel to Europe next year to mark our last summer together before they go to college.
I know mothers never truly become obsolete. I know that not just when I get a text that reads, “There are no notecards and I need them for Latin.”
And I know, too, that even while I lament their growing independence, this is life as it should be. I’ve decided I’m going to stop looking in their rooms to see unmade beds and feel frustrated. Soon enough, the beds will be made and will stay made for weeks or months.
Just as I think that I’ve done too good a job at creating utterly independent beings, my phone chirps with an incoming text: “Are you coming home soon?”
“Leaving work now,” I reply.
“Ok. See you soon. Love you, Mom.”
The feeling that clutches at my chest as I read those words will never become obsolete.