A few weeks ago, I said good-bye to my oldest son, Sean, his wife, Zee and their 15-month old daughter, Jali, waving hard and long as the cab pulled away from the curb, tears forming in my eyes. I don’t know the next time I’ll see them. Sean and his family don’t get home much anymore, living in London as they do now. I suppose that’s the problem with children: They grow up, leave home, and live their own lives.
As the mother of four boys, I’ve learned sons begin to leave their mothers very early on.
Right after Sean was born, my oldest sister called to congratulate me, and then said, “The trouble with having boys is that every significant benchmark in their life is just another goodbye.” I thought of her words as a hairline crack made its way across my heart when I walked Sean into kindergarten, his first full day away from me, ever.
“Have a great day, bud,” I said as he ran in, giving me a brief wave without ever turning around. To this day, he doesn’t know that I sat in my car and cried for 30 minutes.
I recalled my sister’s words again when I dropped my second son, Bret at sleep away camp, helped my third son, Tom pack for a mission trip and watched my fourth son, Rob walk across the stage at his fifth-grade graduation. Over the course of that nine months, my sons’ lives were filled with significant milestones that took them further away from me in some way.
I remembered her words again as my oldest graduated from college and moved to New York, my second son left to study in Europe; my third son got his driver’s license and my youngest came downstairs one morning and was suddenly taller than me. Just like my youngest son’s jump in height, all these benchmarks seemingly happened overnight.
As much as I wanted them to explore the world, learn to drive and yes, grow taller than me, I would be lying if I didn’t confess that a tiny part of me really missed snuggling with them every night or hearing them say, like Tommy did when he was three, “I want to marry you when I grow up, Mom.”
I also know, in order to maintain a relationship with my sons as they leave home, I have to let them go and be hands-off—no demands on their time, no expectations of visits home, no messages left on their cell phones or texts that hint, even slightly, that I miss them or – gasp – need them.
Once they marry, it’s even more imperative that I duct tape my mouth shut.
I recall having lunch with my friend, Kris, when her phone kept ringing and she kept ignoring it. “Do you need to get that?” I finally asked.
“Nah, it’s just the girls,” she said, referring to her two oldest daughters, sounding somewhat exasperated. “They call All. The. Time.”
As we continued our lunch, I realized she wasn’t exaggerating. Her two oldest daughters are grown and living on their own. But more often than not, her daughters’ numbers pop up in Kris’s caller ID five or six times a day – just her girls wanting to discuss the minutia of their lives.
I can’t even imagine. But then again, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I want to.
Whenever I meet a man whose siblings are all brothers, I ask, “Do you still love your mother?” They always chuckle and answer, “Of course.” (Their wives usually corroborate their maternal love).
When I ask, “How often do you call her?” most admit, “Not often enough.”
By the end of this year, three of my four sons will be married, which means I am well into the season of my life when my boys call every so often to just “check in,” their wives – bless them! – having encouraged them to call me. I get it. And I understand it, having had to nudge their father to call his mother. It’s been that way since the beginning of time; it’s even mentioned in the Bible and at most marriage ceremonies: A husband will leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife.
My boys will never know how often I look at the pictures of the four of them scattered around my house and long to have them back in my nest, dropping their laundry on the floor, wrestling, bickering, laughing, and asking me what’s for dinner. The ghosts of their childhoods continually haunt me, teasing a smile from my lips at every memory. It’s my little secret.
It’s not as though I want to go back or even have them living in my basement. It’s just that the quickness with which they move from wanting to kiss you constantly and tell you everything to not even calling can give a mom whiplash. Just as nothing prepares you for being a mother in the first place, nothing prepares you for saying goodbye in tiny, spread-over-time, painful increments.
So, on those rare occasions when my sons do call, I will regale them with tales of the robust, active, empty-nester life I am enjoying with their father and my friends; I will give them updates on my various writing projects and share some of my challenges of running a small business. And, as far as they’re concerned, I am happy, busy, and content, learning new things, traveling, and not missing them much at all.
Diana Keough is an award-winning journalist who lives in Atlanta with her high school sweetheart.