The week before we took our daughter Carson to college, my husband went on an unexpected business trip. Perhaps his absence reminded my son and daughter of the time in their lives when the three of us were inseparable. Perhaps that’s what brought Harry Potter to mind.
When the first book came out, we lived in Maine. I was new to mothering, and my husband’s job took him away a lot. We’d relocated from Los Angeles, where my life had been one of wearing suits and going to an office every day. In Maine, I had two little children and I lived on three acres with a pond in a town of 5,000.
I’d embraced our move, yet in this new life, I was often at a loss for how to fill our days. I copied what other mothers did, pulling my kids in a big red wagon to the beach, the pool, the park. We built forts, baked cookies, dressed up in fairy wings and firefighter helmets. We rolled Play-Doh between our fingers and blew bubbles. But the only time I felt confident that I was doing this mothering thing right was when, at the end of the day, they climbed into bed with me and I read aloud to them.
One of my new mom friends told me about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and that book became the first book my kids and I discovered together. Unlike Winnie-the-Pooh, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter’s story was new to me too. I didn’t know how it ended—no one else could—because J.K. Rowling was still writing it.
My kids are part of the generation whose childhoods marched forward alongside the publication of each new Harry Potter book. They are the children who first donned Harry Potter glasses and Hogwarts robes at Halloween. The children who stood in line until midnight at Barnes & Noble for their preordered copies, and who waited in equally long lines to see each film the day it opened.
Our relationship to “the boy who lived” has stretched over many years, carrying us from those early days in Maine through our move to suburban Washington, D.C., from reading the books to watching the movies to listening to Jim Dale narrate the series on CD. In fact, Dale’s ever-present voice in our home, as Carson carried her CD player from bedroom to living room to basement to kitchen, may be why my husband has never been as big an HP fan as we are.
So when he left on that surprise business trip, an opportunity presented itself. All summer, our conversations had been peppered with the phrase, Before Carson leaves. “Before Carson leaves, we should take a Segway tour of the national monuments.” “Before Carson leaves, let’s try that Ethiopian restaurant on U Street.” “Before Carson leaves, let’s hike Sugar Loaf Mountain again.” In the end, we did none of these things. But when my son Daniel said, “Before Carson leaves, we should watch all the Harry Potter movies back to back,” it felt vital that we do it.
Finding the time to watch eight films totaling 20 hours in one fell swoop was no small feat. My daughter was busy ticking off her list of packing and going-away parties. My son, a rising sophomore, had a summer job and a new girlfriend. Still, as the last of the season’s dogwood and hydrangea bloomed, and the air turned thick and swampy, both my children rushed home to gather with me in the cool of our basement and the glow of our television.
It took us five nights. As we watched, we replayed old conversations and started new ones layered with their ever-maturing perspectives. We talked about good and evil, slavery and prejudice, bullying, pride as an Achilles heel, first loves and lifelong friends. We shouted at the tyranny of Umbridge and cried over the deaths of Dobby, Sirius, Dumbledore, Hedwig, Fred, Tonks, Remus and Snape. As we watched Harry and his friends—the characters and the actors growing up with each film—I couldn’t help but think of my kids’ friendships and first loves, bouts of bullying, hated and beloved teachers, and their duckling-to-swan transformations. I couldn’t help but think of what Rowling calls “old magic”—the power of a mother’s love.
The friend who’d first introduced me to Harry Potter back in Maine had said she thought the story was unfair to mothers. “The whole premise is that a mother’s love should be enough to save you,” she’d said. “But what if it isn’t?” At the time, our children were small, and their growing up stretched before us like a gauntlet. With no end in sight, we could only wonder what dangers lurked ahead, and worry that somehow our maternal inadequacies would be revealed.
Finally, the end of that gauntlet was within my sights. And as I huddled close with my children in our basement over those five nights, I felt a mix of sadness and deep relief, because the mother I once imagined I might be had been replaced by the mother I am.
Earlier in the year, I’d been driving home from an evening yoga class when I was blindsided by keening sobs, ugly and guttural. It was as if the bending, twisting and stretching of yoga had summoned 17 years of mothering to the surface, and I was aware all at once of the mother I was, the mother I am, and the mother I would be when my children are parents themselves. Hurry, hurry, hurry home! I heard these mother selves whispering. Your child is there now, but not for long.
When I’d sobbed after yoga, it wasn’t because I was mourning the end of my daughter’s childhood—I would not trade who she has become to keep her the little girl she once was. My sobs weren’t even about the end of my parenting. A daughter myself, I know that my relationships with my children will ebb, flow and reconfigure as we all age.
No. I’d been crying because all my worrying and fretting, anticipating and hoping were done.
Our family’s story is a good story, a successful story, and for that, my gratitude swells. But my heart aches, too, because the joy of having our story before us is done. And the satisfaction of knowing we’ve made it through duels with the desire to hold the end at bay, the way it did the first time we read the Harry Potter series together, not knowing how it would end, anticipating all that would come next, turning the pages ever faster, hurry, hurry, hurry.
This essay originally appeared on Scary Mommy’s “Club Mid.”