Motherhood comes in seasons. In this episode, I read the text from my published essay "Meeting them at the Bottom of the Slide" © 2020 Mary Illions Wilde, MD which captures my current season.
Motherhood comes in seasons, and as a mom to a large family I experience several seasons simultaneously. I miss the days of the slow steady rocking and the baby on my hip, but still I have a preschooler begging to play cars and a grown son waiting to hear about grad school.
There’s so much talk about child development, but what about mother development? It surely goes on too.
I can sense that I’m different than I was when I first became a mom, hopefully more for better than for worse. I’ve covered a lot of parenting ground, but many more seasons are ahead. I recently calculated that I’d spent over 120,000 waking hours in active parenting. Based on the popularized idea of the 10,000 hour rule*, that would make me an expert right? Except in parenting, the target keeps changing and by the time we master one stage, it’s passed, and we’re on to a new challenge.
In today’s episode I’ll share an essay I wrote that was published about a year ago in various places. It was inspired by a conversation I had with my oldest son. It’s entitled, “Meeting them at the Bottom of the Slide.”
Meeting Them at the Bottom of the Slide
Have you ever noticed that when you take your kid to the park and you’re there to meet them at the bottom of the slide, they could go down a hundred times? Here they come with a smile, hair blowing back, arms outstretched, and you catch them. It’s like a celebration and reunion all in one. But when you go to the park with the ladies, and you stand and talk, all the kids get bored of the playground after a few trips down the slide. There is something magical in being cherished and celebrated that brings freshness and courage.
When I was a little girl, every day when I got home from morning kindergarten, my mom would greet me with a lunch tray. On it was a sandwich, usually butter and peanut butter, and a red plastic cup filled with milk. I’d eat my lunch and then we’d watch “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” My mom came to all my junior high basketball games and cheered for me. (At the highest scoring game of my career, I made 4 points). She came to visit me in college and sat down to read my honors thesis cover-to-cover. When I was in medical school, she flew across the country to hear me present at a symposium in Carmel, California and we walked along the rocky beach and gathered shells and watched the sea lions. My mom gave me space to have my own experience, but was always there to reunite and celebrate. She believed in me to near ridiculous proportions, seeing no bounds to my potential or opportunities. In her mind, nothing was “out of my league.” For instance, once we went to the symphony to hear the famous Joshua Bell play a violin concerto. I overheard her telling someone, “You know, I always thought my daughter would marry Joshua Bell someday.” The other concertgoer raised her eyebrows and said, “Oh! Were they dating?” “No, they’ve never met,” my mom admitted. Minor detail. My actual husband, with whom I’m raising eight beautiful boys, was the better catch for me anyway. All humor aside, my mom’s absolute devotion opened the world to me.
So, fast-forward to last week when I was on the phone with my oldest son. I was simultaneously marveling and lamenting at the seeming centrifugal force upon our family as we all grow and change. He’s at college studying opera and learning things that take him beyond what any of us will experience or understand. His brother is serving as a missionary in Thailand. He bikes around the village and eats foods we’ve never tried (and likely never will) like raw crab and fried crickets. I see the centrifugal force in operation with every son down the line, coming like an inescapable prophecy. Even my youngest, who is 4, just learned to ride a two-wheeled bike. For now he circles our cul-de-sac, but it’s only a matter of time.
Sometimes this anticipatory grief from a nest that is “emptying” makes me want to hold on too tightly. I hear other moms in my small, insular community say they’ll never let their kids venture further than the college in town. I get that, but I don’t get that. As a pediatrician with a behavioral focus, I see firsthand the so-called “failure to launch” epidemic. There are many factors at play, but perhaps one is a motherly “launch ambivalence” of which I too am guilty. We want our kids to go off and experience life, but at the same time we don’t want them to go. Author Rochelle Weinstein said, “A mother’s job is to teach her children not to need her anymore. The hardest part of that job is accepting success.” Personally, I’m in denial. I hope we’ll always need each other to some degree, because of the bonds we’ve created.
My husband and I have been intentional about teaching our kids life skills and inspiring them to independence, but their adventurousness and self-sufficiency is beyond what we have given. My instinct has been to try to do everything I can for my kids and optimize their every experience, which anthropologist David Lancy would consider a recipe for failure-to-launch. In his book, “The Anthropology of Childhood,” he writes of his work in a remote Liberian village where he observed children thriving and independent because of what he called “benign neglect”—they had no one fussing over them; rather, there was a general trust in the natural growth process. Perhaps having eight kids and the inadvertent but naturally resulting “benign neglect” has saved me from a future with eight unemployed grown men living in my basement.
It’s always a balance between stepping in and stepping back. For now, I’ll enjoy the six boys still under my roof and the two who are out venturing. I’ll cherish them, but maybe I can let go of some of that mom-guilt for not being there every single minute, because it’s actually allowing them to grow up, as painful as it feels. All my cumulative, devoted efforts thus far have helped them grow too—my efforts, plus a distillation of devotion passed through the generations.
I say believe in your kids ridiculously; believe they can do and be anything. Cherish them and hold them tightly while you have them, then let them loose onto the world’s playground. But no matter how old they get, be there to meet them at the bottom of the slide.
(Essay originally published in 2020)
*In his book The Outliers
, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that spending 10,000+ hours in a given field leads to expert status in that area. His claim was based on research done by Anders Ericsson, but Ericsson himself says
his research was misinterpreted by Gladwell--particularly adding the qualifier that “deliberate practice” is required, not merely putting in the time. As parents, many of us are well over the 10K mark anyway, and perhaps intentional parenting counts as deliberate practice. :)
© Mary Illions Wilde, MD
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