Several years ago, I worked with a therapist in Michigan during my separation from P’s father. This therapist was brilliant in many ways, and her approach was just what I needed at the time; I often credit her with literally guiding me out of the dead-end situation I was in. I continued to meet with her after the separation, when it was just P and me and when I struggled with intense isolation and loneliness. On one occasion, when I shared these feelings, she responded, “Part of this is just P’s age right now.” She proceeded to tell me about how, when she was a stay-at-home mom with her oldest child, then a year old, she would pace by the window in the afternoon waiting for her husband to come home. At the time, I found her comment irritating and thoughtless; after all, the primary source of my isolation was precisely that no one would be coming home at the end of the day, possibly for a very long time, possibly forever.
Now, more than two years later, I still think her comment was insensitive, but I do understand better what she was trying to say. P’s fourth birthday is coming up in just a few weeks, and I am awestruck by the person he is becoming, and how our relationship is shifting. Much of the observable change has occurred just in the past few weeks. On the one hand, he can simply do many more things by himself, like filling up his water cup or washing his hands. It’s not consistent — I often have to remind him, or ask him if he wants to try something on his own — but we’re getting there.
Then, too, on multiple occasions I have found myself suddenly alone, unexpectedly free to do whatever I want. Lately, when we arrive home from school and work, P goes into his room to lay on his bed for a few minutes, then begins to play by himself. His games have become increasingly elaborate – extended stories, usually involving his dinosaurs or his trains, that last for 15 or 20 minutes. And for the last several nights, he has asked to look at books alone in his room before bed, then gotten up to turn out the light, wave at me, and go to sleep (this is a new routine, so sometimes this happens three or four times in a night before it sticks and he’s really out).
Though I am awed by this shift, I also feel ambivalent about it. It’s not that I am sad he is growing up (or at least, not overwhelmingly so), but rather that I am aware my role is shifting and I don’t yet know how to respond. When he heads off to play alone, for example, I have had to stifle the urge to go in after him; instead, I sit awkwardly on the couch or stand next to the counter in the kitchen, unsure of what to do with myself. I have simply forgotten how I used to spend idle time before I had him. I think I used to stare out the window a lot, but that doesn’t feel particularly satisfying now. So the default has been to empty the dishwasher, or pick up my phone and play Sudoku; tonight, I dared to answer a few work emails. I can’t (yet) relax and lose myself in a book – my ear is still listening for him, ready at a moment’s notice to provide whatever he might need. In a very real way, my entire identity is still wrapped up in being his everything. But he needs less and less now, at least in the way of caregiving, and more in the way of teaching about the world and providing a moral framework.
I’m working that part out, too – specifically, how to talk to him about more sophisticated and problematic issues. He is capable of understanding more now, though he still responds in classic preschooler ways. For example, last weekend I took him to get a haircut and, in the course of my conversation with the hairstylist, learned that a major amusement park at a nearby beach had closed down in the late 1950s or early 1960s when, according to the stylist, “they began bussing in a different element” (in other words, during the era of racial integration). Afterwards, as we drove to the park, I debated to myself whether and how to bring the topic up with P. I decided to ask if he had heard what the stylist said. He had. So I paraphrased in my own words: “She meant that people who looked different started going to the park, but then, instead of sharing, some other people closed the park down so nobody could use it.” I asked him what he thought about that. His answer was priceless: “They’re bad guys!” (I’m also working on deconstructing the idea of “bad guys,” and replacing it with “people who did a bad thing”, but this has been a surprisingly hard idea to break). Anyway, although the conversation was very short and his answer was simple, it pleased me that we were able to talk about something so important, and on his terms.
Perhaps best of all, P is becoming more distinctly my companion, rather than solely my charge and responsibility. Last night, he told me a joke that was genuinely funny, and I laughed out loud. How surprising and refreshing it was to laugh a real laugh, rather than the fake laugh I adopted for the sake of encouraging or humoring him. This is the part I’ve been looking forward to for years, and here it is, sooner than I expected. My sweet P is growing up.