I once told the story of my separation and divorce, and how, for the several years since then, my kids have gone away with their dad for a good chunk of each summer.
The key point of the story was to share how important the time apart has been for me, that I honestly haven’t missed them during their annual 6-week absence, and that I just need a break from my kids sometimes. Most moms do.
But something interesting has happened. I started noticing it earlier this year, when my elder (and frankly more challenging) son, G, turned 13. We had less random, seemingly irrational struggle. He was more willing to help around the house without arguing (at those charmed moments). Ultimately, I began to enjoy spending time with him more.
I was reminded recently of something Maya Angelou said about her mother,
She was a piss-poor mother of small children. But there has never been anybody greater as a parent of a teenager and young adult.
I don’t think my kids would echo Angelou’s sentiments, but reading this was like opening a door of possibility for me.
Parenting my kids in their younger years was hard for me; solo-parenting two young boys pushed me to my limits, and past them.
I struggled to establish the conscious, productive parenting dynamic I longed for. I chastised myself when I became frustrated or lost my temper. I felt guilty for not cherishing every moment and sometimes just needing a break from my kids (even if only for two minutes behind the closed bathroom door.) After reading Angelou’s message, I thought: perhaps things can feel different. Perhaps my relationship with my son has the potential to improve as he grows older, rather than staying stuck in long-established patterns of struggle that have felt nearly impossible to change.
Perhaps I’ll be a better parent of teenagers than I was of young children.
Once I saw this possibility, I watched for how it might play out… in my responses to him, his reactions to me, and the dynamic in general.
I’m taking care not to crowd him, but also to be available.I’m setting limits, but also allowing him privileges as the elder sibling.
I’m holding expectations, but also respecting his ability to decide when he does things.
And, I’m more often taking the space I need for myself, so I don’t have to wait until summertime.
Every time he asks to spend time with me, it feels like a win. If he wants me to snuggle before bed, it’s a double-win. And, these things have been happening more as the year has progressed.
The day before my boys went away with their dad this year was a particularly good one. There was swimming with friends, ice cream, and a movie. It was a full day.
The next day, the day they were due to leave with their dad, was less good. The boys fought with each other and with me, spurred by the usual antagonistic shenanigans between brothers. By the time their dad came, G was tearful. It was hard to know why… whether it was the leaving, frustration from the day, or a combination of both. But as he gave me a hug goodbye, he squeezed and didn’t let go for a long time.
It was the hardest summer goodbye we’ve had. I was tearful, too. And though I knew I needed a break from my kids, I surprised myself as they drove off by thinking, “I might actually miss them this year.”
To some extent, this has proven to be the case.
I miss their sweetness, the sound of the basketball bouncing on the driveway, their excitement seeing the fireflies at night or finding the first toad of the season. I miss the nighttime snuggles and spontaneous card games. But I DO NOT miss the fighting between brothers and nagging for screen time. I don’t miss having nearly every waking moment of my time taken up by scheduling play dates, providing snacks and meals to two growing adolescent boys, and seemingly endless parenting decisions. I could eat well for the month on what’s in my refrigerator right now. I can sit and write for an hour or three. I can stay in the house for days or leave for days, whatever I prefer.
Most importantly, I can take back the space in my brain.
Every year, during this time when my boys are gone, I set a primary intention so the month doesn’t just evaporate. I make progress in one area that might otherwise take the entire rest of the year. One year, it was painting several rooms in the house. Another, it was clearing out and decluttering from top to bottom.
I allow myself the first week of their absence to decompress, and after that I get focused. This year, as I was talking with my brother about my intention for the month, he asked, “What if you don’t fill up your time with things to do, and just allow yourself some space?”
I was speechless. My first instinct was to think, “Then the month will just slip away…” but then, I thought: what if that is the intention? Not to fritter away the time (though a certain amount of frivolity is a good thing) but to intentionally create space?
And so my intention this year is a bit different: to create space to get to the lake regularly. To meditate more. To write more regularly. To take daily walks. And finally, to notice when I’m distracting myself from doing these things which feed me. Perhaps if I spend a month taking notice of my habitual distractions, I can shift them so I have more time for the things that feel important even when I’m parenting. It’s a theory; we’ll see how it goes.
In the meantime, for the first time, I do have to admit that I do kind of miss my boys sometimes… but not enough to give up the space I’ll gain in my brain during the month they spend with their dad. I know I need a break from my kids and that ultimately the benefit of a rested and revived mom is good for my kids, too.