teens

MIA: My son is finishing school and it is ripping my heart apart.

My son is leaving school and I’m in pieces.

Nobody warned me about this. I’ve never read anything about a mother’s grief as her child becomes an adult. Is it grief though? I’m not even sure. I feel like I’ve been blindsided by tsunami of emotion and I’m being washed around and around and upside down and I can’t make sense of my reactions.

Some of my feelings are pleasant; pride and awe at the man my baby has grown into. But knocking me sideways is the sadness.

I’m crying a lot. More in the last few weeks than I have in the last few years. At the root of it, I think, is a potent sense of loss. I feel quite literally bereft.

Like every first-time parent, as soon as my baby was born, I became fixated with the firsts. First smile, first tooth, first roll, first word, first solids, first sleep-through-the-night, first steps. First birthday. The first night in a big bed. The first day in big boy undies.

Each milestone was eagerly anticipated and wildly celebrated. I was usually in a hurry for us to get there and I felt a momentous sense of accomplishment despite not having actually achieved anything myself.

As his mother, each first lifted my heart and was immediately communicated to friends and family in enormous detail. With untold kindness and patience, they pretended to care. He was our first child, the first grandchild on both sides and the first baby among our friends so the enthusiasm may have been genuine. Probably though, it was just politeness. Either way, everyone humoured us and we were jubilant.

But for every first there is a twin last, stalking it in the shadows. With every inch towards independence there’s a corresponding little loss. I didn’t realise this at the time. I could only see the forward momentum. But with every step towards physical and developmental growth, my son took a step away from the newborn with whom I was so madly in love. A step away from me.

mia freedman and son
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Mia and Luca, many years ago. Image: supplied.

I don’t remember when he stopped smelling like a baby. I don’t remember the last breastfeed or the last time I picked him up and carried him or tucked him into bed. I can’t recall the last time he cried out to me after waking with a nightmare or the last time I buckled him into his car seat. I have no memory of the last time I helped him to get dressed or wash his hair or tie his shoes. I couldn’t tell you the last time I made his school lunch or read him a story.

These are the shadow milestones; and you only notice them in hindsight, sometimes years after you’ve left them behind. By then, of course, it’s too late to go back and appreciate each one for the connective tissue it forms between parent and child.

No doubt I rushed through all of these lasts, impatient for them to be done after what probably felt like years of maddening repetition. I didn’t particularly enjoy doing up his seatbelt or washing his hair or making his lunch. Not at the time. Most days these things irritated me. For years they irritated me. But I look back now and feel a deeply melancholy nostalgia for a time when he needed me more than he ever will again.

To be a good parent and successfully raise a child into adulthood, you must make yourself redundant. Nobody spells this out. And when you realise it, it can feel like a Bandaid being ripped from your heart.

Listen to Leigh Sales interview Mia Freedman on her latest book, Work Strife Balance. (Post continues after audio.)

That’s how I’m feeling right now.

As well as leaving school, my son has just turned 18. And while I gratefully attend all the final assemblies and leaving dinner rituals organised by his school to mark the significance of this transition, I turn up each time carrying my heart nakedly in my hands. I am at once eviscerated and in awe of how successfully he has grown up and away from me.

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I love the man he has become but I mourn the baby, the toddler, the child, the boy and even the adolescent that he had to leave behind to become that man.

I miss them, all of them. I miss every incarnation of my beautiful son from the moment he was born. I loved them all with all my heart. I still love them and grieve for them at a level far deeper than I can articulate.

I miss how much all those little lost boys needed me while at the same time being heart-swellingly proud of my big boy’s independent spirit and his ability to navigate life so well, sometimes much better than me.

I cannot begin to imagine the depth of grief felt by parents who have actually lost children, not just figuratively. I am keenly aware of my tremendous good fortune that the loss I am mourning is all in my head.

Mia and Luca, today. Image supplied.

As he finishes school and we cross the threshold into adulthood, I know we must navigate a new path for our relationship as mother and son. I’m just not sure how I’m meant to do that. I’m not sure what it looks like to be the mother of an adult. I’ve been a mother to babies and children for almost 20 years and the boundaries there are pretty clear. Boundaries being the operative word. Set them, reset them, keep setting them, repeat. For 18 years.

So what are we now, my boy-man and I? What am I to him?

All the things that form the scaffolding of parenting; the rules, the boundaries, the lunch making and shoelace tying and organising his haircuts and playdates and driving him to school and picking him up from sport … these things have been imperceptibly dismantled as he’s grown up. And I never even noticed.

So in their place, what’s left? Us, I guess. I hope. Our unbreakable bond. Our friendship. Our connection.

My first-born and I have always been extraordinarily close and as he leaves school and turns 18 there is a definite sense of freedom not just for him but for me. Because in many ways, most ways, my work is done. For better or worse, I have helped to usher him into adulthood. He is an incredible man. A person I choose to hang out with and confide in and with whom I delight in talking and listening to and laughing with beyond most other people in the world.

Go well into this next chapter, big guy. You will always be my little boy. I hope that’s OK.

Love, Mum xxxxxxxxxx

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