You've seen this picture. The backpack straps over shoulders, the haircut that has not grown out of its awkward shape yet. A nervous and excited smile against a cool gray morning.
It's the first day of school.
The caption underneath is the same. “I can't believe how much they've grown! Look at how big they have gotten!”
It is of course, like many of the things we say about parenting, not completely true. Yes, we can believe that they have actually grown. No, we didn't think our child would be the first to outwit the pull of aging and manage to stand still in the stream of time.
But we didn’t notice that the t-shirts in our laundry basket have slowly gotten bigger, or that the requests for cookies have gone from one word shrieks to long, thoughtful, and occasionally manipulative, sentences. We didn’t notice that our kids are growing up until one day it sneaks up on us, smacking us in the face and demanding that we take a picture to document the occasion.
My son started preschool last week. I knew it was happening, the growing up, but I hadn’t fully paid attention to it. It doesn't seem like it was just yesterday that I brought him home from the hospital. It was eons ago, a distant and fuzzy time that I am surprised I can already barely remember. I grasp at the straws left in the attic of my memory and flip through pictures, trying to recall what it was like to rock eight pounds to sleep. He is no longer a baby, something I have encouraged, rejoiced in, and long ago accepted.
When I think about it, I can believe how much he has grown. It is me, the mother, who I do not recognize.
Parenting (in the early years at least, the later ones I have gained no confirmation on) often feels like a magic carpet ride to a destination unknown. I keep waiting for the rug to be pulled out from underneath me, to free fall once my kids realize that the jig is up: I am an impostor. I am not a mother, not a professional child-raiser. I just happened to get knocked up and have these kids. On the inside I'm still 19, babysitting and waiting for the weekend so that I can sleep in. I don't know what I'm doing. Don't tell them yet. I'll wait till they figure it out on their own. Shouldn't take long.
I feel like I am on one of those logs rolling in the river, frantically running in place just to try to keep up with the pace of the changes in my children's lives. I start to understand one phase of parenting – can finally realize that, yes, I am the mother to this baby on my hip, when I look down and see a toddler there instead. I try to become a toddler mom, figuring out how to march along to this busy new rhythm of life when things change again, and I am the mother of a preschooler.
There are the logistics of this new phase of life that I have yet to figure out: what time should we set the alarm for? Which one of us will drop him off, what should I pack for snack? But there is something bigger than that at play. I don't know what it is like to be a mother in this stage of life. And if I figure it out at all, he will likely already be in sixth grade. And all the while, the log will keep rolling, the carpet will keep flying, and I will be trying to hang on for dear life, not sure if I should believe that this is really happening.
My son has changed significantly over the last three years. He can walk and talk. He rarely defecates on me anymore. He sleeps through the night, at least most of the time. But he is not the only one who had grown up. So have I, and that is what I truly cannot believe.