This weekend, my daughter celebrated her 12th birthday with a group of her friends at our home. She’d been planning it for months, down to the finest detail. A few of those details had to be scrapped, but the majority of them were played out on the big day. By all accounts, the celebration was a success. Everyone seemed to have genuine smiles on their faces pretty much the whole time. The girls, most of them well-acquainted, collided like a bunch of giddy sisters. Awkward moments seemed nonexistent as they babbled amongst themselves through the various activities – from the bobbing-for-apples, to the piñata-smack session, to the caramel-wrapping-on-apples activity, to the musical gift-opening, to the spontaneous limbo and “truth or dare” games, to the final station downstairs singing karaoke. It was three hours’ worth of one constant stream of chatter and giggles.
And where was I during all of this? On the sidelines at a quiet, respectful distance; the place to which I seem to be being relegated more and more with each passing year of motherhood.
The same was true of my son’s eighth-grade class pilgrimage Friday. I was there alright, visibly so as the group photographer, but even in that role I flitted along the periphery of the group, on the outside more than in. I came set on a twofold mission – to take photos for the teacher leading the pilgrimage and hang out with my kid for the day.
My older children have made it clear what part I am to play in their lives at this juncture. I practically had to sign a legal contract with my son in order to go on the pilgrimage. “No photos of me, Mom, you have to promise,” he said beforehand. I did my best to honor this, though I think I might have caught just a bit of his sneaker dipping into a mud puddle in one of the shots.
The thing is, I remember too much about my own childhood for any of this to faze me. I remember how horrified I was to be seen by my parents while out in public most of my junior- and senior-high years of school. If any of my peers saw me with my parents, they might draw the conclusion that I’d actually come to be through these alien beings with which I was trying so hard to disassociate. But I also remember what it was like when my father came to my track meets, how it felt to hear his powerful voice cheering me on. I remember, too, the comfortable feeling of having a mother who worked in the same school where I spent most of my days. She wasn’t right in the middle of my sphere, but she was always there if a desperate moment called for it.
The extent of our presence in our children’s lives changes in quantity as they grow. Oftentimes, their physical needs are not nearly so daunting when they’re older as when they were younger. For example, my daughter had made out her activity list and sent out the invites well before I got directly involved in her party. Sure, I stepped in at some point, but for the most part, I can honestly say she ran the show. And yet…I also sensed she needed me around. I sensed that if not for me, she would not have had such a huge smile on her face, would not have been giggling so loudly. I was the person who was relied upon to run the stereo for the musical gifts and summoned when it was time for the Sloppy Joes to be doled out. At one point, I left the party area for a while and let the party go on in my absence. In time, I was called back, as I knew I would be.
I’m still the anchor, even if with a less striking presence than in years past. I know this because at one point during her party, my daughter looked at me and sneaked in a quiet but sincere, “Thanks, Mom.” That’s all it took for me to know that even though it’s so much about her these days and oftentimes, I seem the afterthought at best, appearances are deceiving.
One of the blessings of having a large family is there are fewer opportunities to be overly wistful. If there might be any temptation to feel let down about being relegated to the sidelines with my older kids, I’ve still got my 4-, 6- and 9-year-old kids on the other end. For the most part, I’m still a “center stage” mom to them, and in that way, I’m not even close to fading away anytime soon.
Whether I’m playing my sidelines-mom role or throwing on my center-stage mom hat, I feel certain about my purpose within this family. Along with my husband, I am an essential half of the big old bottle of glue that keeps our family intact, spiritually, physically and emotionally. Even as my presence begins to wane in apparent vibrancy, I know that all is well. I know that it means those pieces of myself I’ve been offering my children all this time are now becoming infused into who they are. The more I get out of the way, the more they can be who they are meant to be. That’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s one of our primary goals as parents – to help our kids find their wings.
My children may no longer be hoisted onto my hip, but we’re still very much attached. I’ll happily assume my position on the sidelines while gently letting my children know that even if they’re inclined to disown me over the next few years, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. They can count on that.
Have you reached the sidelines stage of your parenting yet? If so, how have you transitioned from a more intense physical role to one requiring more of an emotional investment?