Now that Valerie Monroe's son is all grown up, what happens to their primal bond?
I so loved being pregnant that I wished I could carry my son forever. The bigger I got, the more luxuriously contented I felt. And not just contented: commanding, sorcerous. Who needed to pull this bunny out of the hat? In the end, the doctors had to tie me down and remove my son surgically. My obstetrician, who performed the Cesarean section, would say that my cervix had incompletely dilated. That's what he thinks. I simply refused to give my baby up.
One evening when my son was about 8 months old and I had not yet weaned him, my husband and I left him with a sitter so that we could take in a ballet. By the end of the performance, my throbbing breasts were signaling that I'd been away from the baby long enough. When we walked into our living room, the cheerful young sitter was holding him by the hands as he stood, his fat legs wobbly, on her lap. In the moment before he saw me, his expression was one of careful determination, as if he knew he'd had one too many, but that he could stand on this lap without falling over, dammit, if he just tried hard enough. When his eyes met mine, though, he burst into a brilliant, drooly grin, leaning toward me and bouncing crazily in his excitement. I picked him up. He clutched my neck and started snuffling around in my blouse. As I settled on the couch to nurse him, I felt absolutely whole and complete, the way I'd felt during my pregnancy. It is this powerful, primitive, empathetic connection, this merging, this heady blend of joy, satisfaction, and easy competence that is also the deep grief of motherhood. Because to raise a child successfully, you have to let him go.
As a new parent, I was ambushed by the intensity of the attachment; I had no idea how my feelings would evolve over the course of my son's childhood, from his early loud and stubborn stirrings for independence to his current status as a 20-year-old college student and world traveler. The first time a sitter took him out in the stroller, I stood at the window, my face pressed to the glass, waiting for her to round the corner on their return. The idea of my son's ever crossing a busy city street alone? You might as well have said that he'd be walking on the moon. Tentatively, I shared a confession with one of my mother-friends: "I know I'm not supposed to," I said, "but I love my baby more than I love my husband." "What can you do?" she said. "Me, too."
Yet day by day, as my son grew, our connection somehow became elastic enough to accommodate his need to establish himself as separate from me: At 3, he suggested a playdate at his best friend Nicolette's house. Really? He wanted me to leave him there alone? "Yep," he said, "pick me up later." At 6, he wanted to join an after-school program; at 9, to go to sleepaway camp; at 12, to spend the weekend at a friend's in the country; at 17, to go to school in Minnesota; at 19, to study in Japan.
The summer before he left, I couldn't get enough of him; I took every opportunity to be home when he was. One day I asked him if he agreed that the closer a child is to his parents, the farther away he has to go to become independent of them. "I don't know," he said, "maybe." Is that why he chose to go to Japan? "Oh no," he said. Then: "Maybe." The day he left for Kyoto, I felt as queasy as the first time he walked to school alone. Only he was no longer a small, slender shoot, bearing the heavy fruit of his backpack, overripe with books—he was tall and strapping, firmly supporting the weight of his decision to leave everything familiar for eight months of the unknown. "We're doing this quickly, like taking off a Band-Aid," he said at the airport when it was time to say goodbye. He hugged me and my husband tightly, turned around, and walked to the plane. I waited till we got to the parking lot and then cried—I cried in short bursts for weeks. I kept thinking, "The sweetest part of my life is over. How can I stand it? What will take its place?"
About halfway through his stay, we visited him. He met us at the airport. He was easy to spot, a couple of heads taller than everyone else in the crowd. "Just follow me," he said, as he led us through the maze of people, passageways, and ticket booths to our train. "Follow me," he said, as he bought our tickets, as he helped us find our room at the hotel. When he was on his own, he rode around Kyoto like the Japanese, on a bicycle. The bike was a little small for him—as was almost everything else—which made him seem bigger than when he'd left home. Or maybe he was bigger; I wasn't sure. His host family obviously adored him. Though I couldn't understand their conversations, the mutual kindness and respect they shared with my son needed no translation. For two weeks, my husband and I followed him like baby ducklings. And by the time he put us on the train to Osaka for our flight home, I understood that the sweetest part of my life was not over but that it was expanding, the way the connection between my child and me has always been expanding, to include experience and satisfaction and joy I could never have imagined. I wish I could love everyone in my life the way I love my son: cleanly, without jealousy or neediness; wanting for him happiness, success, strength, and many more people who love him as I do.