Mia Freedman: There's a hole in my heart watching my kids grow up.

There’s this song that I hate. I’ve always hated it because it upsets me to the point where I can’t listen to it without feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt, loss and longing that wraps itself around my heart like a baby boa constrictor.

The song is called 'Cats In The Cradle' which probably won’t ring a bell and neither will the name of the guy who sings it - Harry Chapin. But you’d know it straight away if you heard it.

The chorus is catchy and it belies the bittersweetness of the lyrics which speak of the way the bond between parent and child stretches and frays as children grow up and away.

This is a song that speaks to every person who has a child or was once a child. This is a song that speaks to every person. And it guts me every time I hear it but especially lately because I have found myself at a particularly poignant moment in being both a parent and a child. 

A lot is written about the sandwich generation; the people who are impacted by the double whammy of having to care for little kids and ageing parents simultaneously. And by people, I mean women because we know that women do the vast majority of caring within families.

The idea of being sandwiched between the demands of your parents and children speaks to a very real burden of having to split your time and your attention as the needs of others take priority over your own.

I was fortunate enough not to experience this. 


I had my first child aged 25 when my parents and in-laws were all in their early 50s, the same age I am now. They were brim full of energy and enthusiasm for their grandchildren and were a foundational part of my childcare arrangements for the next decade as I had two more children. Not only did my parents not add to my burdens of caregiving, they alleviated them massively.

Now, though, my kids are older. They range in age from 14 to 25 and the physical and logistical challenges of parenting are firmly behind me.

In the place of that little kid dependence that can feel everything from intoxicating to suffocating, is… a hole. The hole in my time is easy to fill. I have work and friends and the space to just potter in a way I haven’t for 25 years without feeling like I was stealing time from my family.

The hole in my heart is harder to explain and, I’m discovering, impossible to fill.

It’s not that I love them any less fiercely than I did at age two or five or nine. It’s that I am no longer the main character in their lives. I am very much a side character on my way to becoming a novelty cameo. 

This hurts. It is also healthy and normal and I get that. Because at the same time, I can see how this has played out - is still playing out - with my own parents. 

Back to Harry Chapin’s song. It begins with the birth of his son. Harry sings:

My child arrived just the other day


He came to the world in the usual way

But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay

He learned to walk while I was away

And he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew

He'd say "I'm gonna be like you, dad"

"You know I'm gonna be like you"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man in the moon

"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when"

But we'll get together then

You know we'll have a good time then

Harry’s son is growing up and Harry is busy with his life as parents always are because they have to work and also because the needs of babies and little kids can feel suffocating at times. His son wants to spend time with him and Harry loves his son but Harry has shit to do.

In the next verse of the song, it’s 10 years later and Harry is still busy.

My son turned ten just the other day

He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play

Can you teach me to throw, I said-a, not today

I got a lot to do, he said, that's okay


And he, he walked away, but his smile never dimmed

It said, I'm gonna be like him, yeah

You know I'm gonna be like him 

No judgement, Harry. Sometimes you just don’t have time to play ball because you have to work to pay the rent and also playing ball can be pretty boring if we’re going to be honest. So can going to the park. Playing kitchens. Reading Where’s The Green Sheep for the 489th time. Watching The Wiggles. Or doing puzzles. Especially if you have several children but also it can be boring if you just have one.

Listening to this verse after I had kids always made me panic because it was like I was feeling bereft for something I hadn’t yet lost and that felt like a weird kind of guilty pressure but also grief.

Like when you’re in the supermarket with a toddler who has literally shat their pants and is trying to take off their nappy to show you and you’re trying to urgently bribe them with something you grabbed off the nearest shelf which might be a packet of red frogs but who cares because you just need to distract them so you don’t have to deal with what is about to happen next and an old lady comes over and grabs your arm and looks deep into your eyes and says intensely, “Enjoy every second with your precious baby because tomorrow you will blink and they will be gone.”

It’s amazing how fast you forget what it’s like to be the stressed mother and how quickly you become the nostalgic old lady who longs for the intensity of that time. 


In all aspects of my life, I have always felt such pressure to enjoy the moment even while I am experiencing the moment. 

The idea that life and IMPORTANT MEMORIES of my children’s lives are slipping through my fingers always sits in my stomach like a stone. 

Even today as I write this, a part of me is thinking I should be playing Scrabble with my kids to make memories before they leave home even though we all hate Scrabble.

Whether it’s now or looking back to every single age my kids once were, I’ve always felt such guilt about not always being available to play or to be present in those moments even in the middle of the moments themselves.

All kids want is more of their parents’ time and attention and this is not just true of mothers who work outside the home. It’s not possible - or even a good idea - for any mother to dedicate the entirety of her life and her time to her children. It’s neither good for her nor her children. 

The purpose of parenting is to encourage your child to be self-sufficient and independent so that they can do things for themselves and ultimately leave the nest. Job well done. Being a parent is a job that literally has redundancy built into it - if you do it right.

But I’ve learned that being a mother means disappointing your children and sometimes not putting their wants over your needs. Your need to work. Your need to have friendships and romantic relationships. Your need to spend time with adults or pursue your passions and interests… your need to have a life beyond and alongside your identity and role as a mother.


And yeah, kids are disappointed when you can’t play with them and I am wracked with guilt for all those times because I feel bad for them but also grief because they’ll never be little again and my god how I miss my little people who were those little ages...

Back to Harry. The next moment of his life he sings about is 10 years later. His son is now around 20 years old and I reckon Harry is in his 50s somewhere - the age I am now.

This is a key moment in our story.

Well, he came from college just the other day

So much like a man I just had to say

Son, I'm proud of you, can you sit for a while?

He shook his head, and they said with a smile

What I'd really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys

See you later, can I have them please?

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man in the moon

"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when"

But we'll get together then, dad


You know we'll have a good time then

Oooooph. This verse always hit me like a gut punch. Because this is the season of my parenting in which I find myself, kind of bereft. You’re no longer their manager who gets to tell them what to do. You’re more like an external consultant whose input may or may not be taken into consideration. Probably it won’t. Whatever.

This is when their eyes no longer light up when they see you even though yours still do, like the needy girlfriend you’ve somehow become.

This is the season when you become aware that the power balance has shifted. Now it’s you who seeks their approval. You who wants to spend time with them. You who feels needy and insecure about whether or not they even like you very much. You who really misses them but is also genuinely happy that they are living independent lives and also happy that you have more freedom than you did when they wanted you to play puzzles.

It’s so, so bittersweet.

In the final verse of the song, Harry’s son has had his own family and the cycle has begun again.

I've long since retired, my son's moved away

I called him up just the other day

I said, I'd like to see you if you don't mind

He said, I'd love to, dad, if I can find the time

You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kids have the flu


But it's sure nice talking to you, dad

It's been sure nice talking to you

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me

He'd grown up just like me

My boy was just like me

And so the cycle continues. No doubt Harry’s son isn’t spending as much time with his own children as they would like and one day maybe he will sing a song about that.

What I’ve learned is that as your kids get older, their attention and their respect is not built-in. 

You have to earn it and you have to work for it. That means meeting them where they are at, showing an interest in whatever they’re into, asking them what they think. 

I’ve also learned that it’s a rare adolescent who wants to hear a story about their parent's life, especially if it’s in the context of trying to relate a helpful anecdote about something they’re going through. 

The thing about side characters and consultants is that they’re not the centre of the story. And the thing about your children growing up and away from you is this: you have to make peace with your changing role in their lives and lean into the very real joy to be found in watching and loving the young adults they become.

Feature Image: Supplied. 

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