Paint Job

Discreet thumps and bangs from the upstairs back, and the occasional sound of a power sander, as my friend Chris works away at what used to be my older kid's bedroom. The kid himself has moved into the city, to finish up at a much better high school than the (at best mediocre) school through which he suffered for what seemed like an eternity. He is very happy to be gone, and he doesn't want his room any more. So we're starting to get it ready for his younger brother to move into. Since that particular room has been boy-infested for at least the last twenty years (the previous owners also had teenaged sons), it needs a fair bit of work to be readied for painting. And so Chris, who knows and loves handyman-type stuff, is up there slapping on drywall compound and neatly patching holes.

One of the things about being a parent is that you're made to understand much that, before parenthood, you didn't have a clue about. When I was childless, I couldn't understand why parents couldn't keep their toddlers in perfect order in public places. I learned better. I also couldn't understand why parents couldn't insist on good grades, perfect nutrition, and total control over their kids' TV watching habits. Ha... nothing like complete ignorance...

And likewise, I couldn't understand the problems parents sometimes have in letting their chicks fly the nest--how some of my friends' parents (and maybe even some of my friends) seem to need to hang on, even to pull the kid back into their orbit, as though by gravitational attraction. I was all ready to be an empty nester--quite looking forward to it, in fact.

Then the first kid actually *left*. And my lower lip is pouting out so far I'm practically falling over it.

It's not that I want him back here. I know how much happier and better off he is in his new school. More than that, it was a matter of kairos--God's time, the ripeness of things. He was ready to leave home and move on, and it would have been criminal on my part not to give him the maternal heave-ho with my best blessing. This is right, and I know it's right ....

... and I miss him like stink.

It's more than that, though: it's the beginning of the end of a core part of my life, the part I started when this self-same kid was put in my arms, a strange, warm, satisfying cloth-wrapped bundle looking startlingly like ET. At that moment, I could feel all my neural circuitry being rewired through my hypothalamus, or whatever. I had become A Mother. Of course I'll always be A Mother--the state is irrevocable--but the active part of my mothering is starting to end. And that is a small death.

I can't whinge too much: there are parents who have really lost children--lost them to death, or to total alienation of one sort or another. My kid still checks in whenever he wants a driving lesson or help with a school essay. I can still see him whenever I want, more or less. And he comes home occasionally. But nonetheless, at a fundamental level, he's gone, leaving behind a room in serious need of redecorating and an ache in his mother's middle.

One thing I have come to believe is that all human love reflects, however palely and distortedly, God's love. Lovers feel for each other the smallest bit of the passionate attraction that God feels for us, and that we will feel for God when we see God face-to-face. Friends, contented in each others' company, have a shadow of the peace and tranquil affection that we'll find in the Life to Come. And my love for my children is a tiny image of God's love for all God's children--all of us.

I know in my gut that good parenting means letting the kid go when the kid is ready, and being willing to suffer a bit of loss in the process. I have run into parents who couldn't face that small death; mothers, particularly, who'd invested so much in being mothers that they had real trouble letting go when the time came to set the fledgling free. It's scary, too: you know now that the kid has to make it on his or her own; and also that you've lost your last chance to make good whatever you didn't do right while you were still actively parenting--if you ever could, that is. I don't know how fathers feel about the process; I don't know if they, too, grieve. Probably some do.

But now, for the first time, I think I have some shadowy understanding of how much the gift of free will costs God. The God I believe in isn't the controlling "daddy knows best" version, who preplans everything so that it all comes out the way He wants, and who demands perfect obedience from His critters. I believe instead in a God who is ready to suffer in order to allow us to make our own choices, because when we choose to love God and walk Godward, we must do so freely, of our own volition. A forced gift, or a gift manipulated for until the giver has no real choice, is no gift at all. God wants the gift of our selves so much that it hurts, but he respects us too.

In a year or three, perhaps the kid will find himself missing us more than he does now--maybe, or maybe not. A part of me wants to be missed; another part wants him to be gloriously happy wherever he is. What he does know for absolutely certain is that home is here any time he wants it, and that my love for him cannot be shut off. That leaves him free to spread his wings, knowing the branch will be there if he needs it. And that's how it should be.

Meanwhile, the younger kid has picked out a nice blue for the walls. It's time that room got a new coat of paint. And then we can tackle the younger kid's room....

Copyright © 2002 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 25 May 2002
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