This post is NOT going to be another chronicle of my tears. Really, it’s not. Well. Mostly not.
Quinn and Claire went back to school this week. The most notable difference between last year’s first day and this year’s first day is that I didn’t find myself crying on a little concrete pedestal– the traffic island in the middle of a busy London street after drop-off.
Granted, Quinn started kindergarten last year. That’s a vulnerable moment for every mom. And I had only just left my oldest child at university a continent away for his freshman year. So double whammy vulnerability. Oh, and I didn’t know anyone here yet, and the time difference made it ridiculous for me to call my mom or my sister or any friends back home where it was 3:30 am. So I was feeling pretty isolated– the traffic island was an amazing metaphor, come to think of it. And possibly some of those tears were in the nature of, “Oh Lord, what have we done? What are we doing here?”
This year was So Very Different. I had no nervous butterflies about getting to school via public transport (aka, big red London buses) in time. I was hugging people in the hallway, greeting the librarian and the assistant principal like old friends, giving the new families whatever help I could (even if that was just sending out friendly vibes)… It felt good to feel not quite so not-in-control, and it felt great to be able to offer a little help to people who were where I had been.
My life, I realized, has felt out of control for a long time. Nearly two years, in fact– from the time we decided we might move to London that fall, just when our oldest was starting his Senior year and all the stressful gearing up for college. Moves and graduations, leave-takings and growing ups. Yeah, that stuff will make a parent feel like she’s not the boss– of anything. (I’m smiling as I write, at a momentary flashback to itty bitty Chloe– hands on her skinny hips, strawberry blond curls sticking out– saying, for the millionth time, “You’re not the boss of me!” to her older brother. Now they text each other regularly from their colleges on opposite sides of the country.) So maybe boss isn’t the right word– it’s not like I ever really acted like the boss in the first place. Maybe being in the driver’s seat is a better metaphor. The mom is driving the family carpool for years and years, and then– suddenly– she’s not. That’s the kind of loss of control that happens when the kids start the college thing. Then throw in a move overseas, and, well…
But the moves are done, and for now we’re ‘sorted,’ as the Brits like to say. Now that Will and Chloe have both left home for college, I have nothing left to dread in that regard for a long time (Claire is only in 3rd grade). It feels like the major tumult might be done. (God help me for saying that.) So I’m coming out of this 2-yr-long storm and surveying the damage. Mostly I’m pleased at the things that held up through it all. Not that I’m not battered. There are way more gray hairs and wrinkles than there were in Marblehead. But I have more compassion for myself and my body. After all, we’ve been through some things together. The gray hairs have sprung from the stress of moving, and worry about the kids (far and near) and the daily details of making a new life. The wrinkles have come from– I’m not gonna lie– a lot of tears through the last couple years. It sounds cliché, but those outward signs of aging represent the experience, the wisdom, the empathy I’ve gained through these hard transitions.
Don’t look now, but I think I’ve finally learned to be gentle with myself. And sister, right now I am positively exuding empathy for women in all stages and walks. I want to be an ear, a shoulder, a comforting hug. I want us each to respect the walk we’re on, and know that whatever trials we encounter, they tend to be universal. We love till we think our hearts will explode. We hurt until we think the sun cannot possibly rise again. But it always does. We condemn ourselves for what we don’t get done. We condemn ourselves for what we do. We create elaborate plans to improve ourselves, our lives, and even our loved ones. But we are still ‘just’ ourselves, and never the perfect version of anything we set out to be.
But we’re walking on this path. All the while we’re walking.
Maybe you have to have been on the trail for quite a while before you get to look back and actually realize you’ve covered a lot of challenging ground. You turn around and appreciate that you’ve climbed over rocks and boulders, across streams and through muddy bogs; and when you pause and look up, you realize that the view is… just breathtaking.
You can see others further back the trail, perhaps a woman wading through the exhaustion of having two or three littles at home. Losing her mind piece by piece. Making unrealistic plans for what she hopes to accomplish during nap time or during the two hours the oldest is in preschool. Disappointment and self-condemnation that she couldn’t get it done. Utter exhaustion by dinnertime. Falling asleep while reading the bedtime story, then staying up later than she should because she’s so desperate to have a little time to herself. You try to shout back, “It’s okay! Don’t be hard on yourself! All of us up here were just like you on that part of the trail– you’ll make it! And it doesn’t matter if the toys are picked up every night…” But she probably doesn’t hear you, because she is where she is on the trail, and the sounds of her busy life are roaring in her ears as she does her best to cross that river.
Or there’s another one resting on a trailside boulder (or possibly even a London traffic island), crying as she watches her 5-year-old walk away from her wearing a backpack. You smile at his sweetness and you wish you could reach out and touch her shoulder. “Yes, it feels like such a change, doesn’t it?” you’d say. “But he will still hug you after school today, and the day after that, and… you’ve got lots of time to love your little one.” Silently, you might add, Just pay attention! It all goes so fast, and you’ll barely realize it’s happening and then you wake up one day and realize his feet are bigger than yours and he doesn’t really hug you after school anymore. But you wouldn’t say that out loud because, well, how is that edifying, and why would you want to add to her sorrow?
It’s not just moms, either– that happens to be the trail I’m looking back at right now, but there are lots of junctions along the way: jobs and school, boyfriends and girlfriends, weddings and births. Funerals. Something about the start of a new academic year this fall– and the first anniversary of our life in London– has me looking back, and looking at others, with a new view and a deeper tenderness. I suppose scientists would say there’s some hormone at work– that’s fine, because there’s plenty of room for science right here alongside this more metaphysical view. I mean, why wouldn’t God create hormones like little instruction codes to help us along this whole road: eat, grow, run away, reproduce, love…?
I also see better than ever that you can’t walk someone’s walk for them. That kindergarten mom has to go through her moment and her reactions (and maybe her reaction is ‘wahoo! freedom!’– which is also legit!) in her own time; just like no abstract knowledge that everything will be okay could stop me from shedding tears on the tarmac flying away after my term-long goodbyes to Will and Chloe in the last 10 days. Traffic island to tarmac, it’s a part of my walk, and I just have to feel what I’m going to feel. The best we can do for one another is simply to be there, as our sisters and friends and parents and grandparents have been in their turn.
And we mustn’t forget to look back, and up and out, over where we’ve been. We might be kinder to ourselves and to others if we occasionally take another look at all the road we’ve covered.
Besides, the view is fantastic.