Leap From the Nest

Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young girl going out of my door.

Malvina Reynolds and Alan Greene

Autumn is my favorite time of year and there’s nowhere the season is more provincial than in the Midwest. A tangible chill in the morning air softens the heat of summer and signals a coming change.  Seemingly overnight, leaves begin to turn.  Variegated branches hint of color that will soon become rich orange, yellow and red, flaming briefly before falling to the ground and creating nature’s perfect playground for jumping children. The farmer’s market yields a spread of eggplant, pumpkin, corn, squash and apples; not only a visual feast, but a culinary mother lode for comfort foods that fill the house with the tantalizing aromas of savory soups, roasted vegetables, freshly baked bread, and apple pie. Thrushes, sparrows and other song birds nest mid-migration, on their way to warmer climates. The days shorten and the pull of the Earth’s orbit around the sun is felt. My own focus gravitates homeward; summer is over. It’s time to go back to school.

There are calendar years, fiscal years, and even dog years, but when it comes to family life, the passage of time is measured in academic years. The real ‘Happy New Year’ brings new grades, new friends, and new beginnings. And new school supplies. Maybe it doesn’t flip everyone’s switch, but when I was a little girl, the sight of clean, lined paper, sharpened yellow pencils, and an un-smudged pink eraser were like toys on Christmas morning.

As a mom, however, the sight of Back-to-School marketing campaigns rolled out right after the Fourth of July holiday fills me with dread. Just the thought of the shopping trip is exhausting. But it must be done. Every year I mix with the crush of harried parents, searching for the right brand of scissors and fifteen colored folders required to have pockets and brads. Sydney, my thirteen-year-old with Down syndrome wanders around putting random things in our cart. Haley, my precious nine-year-old, with list in hand, reads aloud, “’One package 2-count black dry erase markers—thin.’ Mom those ones are fat ones,” she points out. “Look at the list, Mom! It says thin.” When I don’t immediately respond to her correction, she ups the volume. “Mom, Mom, MOM!!!  We have to have the not fat ones.”

By the twentieth item on the list, the girls are bickering and poking at each other as I hiss threats under my breath, hoping no one I know is within earshot. The last few months of orchestrating recreational activities including summer school, swimming lessons, drama camp, science camp, and sleep-away camp, along with assorted play dates, visits to MeMe’s house, and oh, a two week vacation to the beach and Disney World has left me zilch in the way of patience. When Haley whines for the ninety-ninth time, “But what are we going to do fun today, Mom?” I got nothin.’

School cannot start soon enough. I am done with 24/7  togetherness and daydream about the stretches of time when they’re productively occupied; learning, exploring, growing, recreating . . . without me. I fantasize about blowing kisses after the bus then walking into my quiet house, coffee mug in hand and heaving a deep sigh of relief as I shut the front door behind me. Even if it’s just paying bills and folding laundry, it will be so much easier without my little constant companions. And having lunch with friends or getting a massage? I’m counting the days.

For their part, as they meet their teachers at Open house, the kids have gone from lamenting the end of summer to looking forward to seeing their friends. The first day will be ever memorialized with haircuts and special outfits. I still remember how stylish I felt in 1969 wearing my red denim button-up dress, red knee socks, and two-toned brown suede saddle shoes.

I see that confidence in Haley, who’s chosen a flowery, matching ensemble from Gymboree. A little girl unafraid of bruises and scraped knees, who climbs trees without hesitation, she also puts on sparkly red Mary Jane’s when she’s feeling fancy. And Sydney who is no longer a child, but a newly-minted teenager, reflects that identity in fashion choices off the trendiest stores at the mall.

As they pose for the iconic first-day-of-school pictures, I’m astounded, as I am every year, at how much they’ve changed.  My mind does a quick rewind to the toddlers they were just yesterday; cheeks rounder then, their whole bodies padded and soft.

“When did this happen?” I think, looking at their long, slender legs and angular faces. “How could their childhood be passing so quickly?”

I try to stop myself from fast forwarding to visions of driving, dating, and graduating, but they come to mind unbidden. With my first two, now grown and gone, I saw how fast it goes and it makes me want to stop time in its tracks. As I look at my little beauties, I’m touched by their unpretentious courage as they venture innocently out into the world, yet again.

This year Sydney’s been expressing apprehension at approaching seventh grade. As her dad and I tucked her in on the last night of summer vacation, she said, “I’m a little nervous.” We told her everyone was a little nervous.

“Actually, I’m not nervous,” Haley chimed in. Thanks, kid–that helps a lot.

We kept reassuring Sydney everything would be fine, while wondering ourselves, “Would it really?”

She was still uneasy when my husband, Steven got her up this morning, bright and early. “Daddy, I’m nervous,” she said, echoing her sentiments from the night before and leaning into his chest. After a little hugging and prodding, he got her moving. She bathed and dressed and combed her long hair. Ate breakfast and packed her lunch. She sharpened her pencil and put on her backpack. Then she waited for the bus.

Most of the time the door-to-door provision of special education transportation works well; Sydney has ridden since the short bus since first grade. Unfortunately on this important first day of school it never came. We waited 45 minutes and as Sydney’s anxiety mounted, I made the decision to take her, wishing I’d just driven her in the first place.

“I’m nervous, Mom,” she reiterated when we got to school, clutching me as we climbed the stairs. “I might throw up.”

After a few wrong turns we found the right room. This was a new program, a ‘class within a class.’ As a progressive step toward inclusion, it was designed so Sydney would spend some academic time with her typically-developing peers. The students would learn the same material, together, in the same environment, but work at their own level, within the range of their ability.

We arrived late and while Sydney found a table with an open seat, I spoke with the teacher, noticing she had put her head down on her arms. I’d planned to leave but when she lifted her little face to me it was splotchy and wet with tears.

“What’s wrong, honey?” I asked, bending over her.

“I don’t want to stay!” she whispered frantically. Then, looking at the boy next to her, she added, “And I don’t know him!” She threw her arms around my neck and shook with sobs.

I thought of Elizabeth Stone’s definition of motherhood: “to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Mine has been roaming the world for twenty-seven years and that day it was wearing hot pink jeggings and a glittery chiffon top from Justice.

When my first baby was born, I didn’t know much, but I loved her with a powerful force that instantly transformed me. I went from being a young woman, self-focused and unimpeded, to being a young mother, responsible for a tiny human life. A wellspring of devotion and adoration simply materialized. Meeting her every need was a simple biological compulsion. But my desire to nurture and vigilantly protect her was matched by sheer and utter exhaustion.

And thus I came smack up against the enigma of motherhood.

Once my children breathed life, I ceased to be an autonomous human being. Their very existence meant I would never again live with thoughts only of myself, free from worry. Even when I desperately needed relief from responsibility, I was unable to take it without apprehension or guilt. To trust their care to someone else, to let go of control required a quieting of my basest impulse, my fear that something would happen to them if I weren’t there to make sure it didn’t.

When my oldest, Melissa, now twenty-seven, went to kindergarten, I’d had a little practice at letting go.  It got easier with the right caregivers. But the keen, sharp sense that she was my primary purpose in life never diminished. As I walked her to school that first day I said a little prayer.

“Please, keep my child safe–safe from bodily harm and danger, yes, but from emotional wounds, too. Protect her innocence and her fragile sense of self.” In 1990, parents didn’t walk their kids to class. They left them, even kindergarteners, on the playground to wait for the bell. I hugged her goodbye, and swallowing my tears, walked the half a block back to our house.

Not home but fifteen minutes, before school had even begun, my beautiful laughing girl ran home, crying because a boy had made fun of her sandals. I gathered her in my arms and felt a surge of yearning to take away her pain. Sheltering her the only way I knew how at the time, I let her stay home with me, bartering the balance between keeping my chicks under my wing and allowing them out of the nest.

My second, Jeremy, was clingy. He would wrap his little arms around my thighs and hang with his whole body weight as he begged me not to leave. Again I faced the quandary—I needed to give him the chance to find self-reliance, but my inclination was to indulge and comfort. Still, I’d learned to be strong and walk away. And he learned to love school, reassured that I would always come back.

Years later when Sydney graced our lives, her diagnosis of Down syndrome reignited my protective tendencies. Parenting a child with a disability also taught me that too much shielding can thwart opportunities to overcome difficulties. Like when she was learning to crawl. The physical therapist reassured me that though Sydney fought the uncomfortable exercises, this was how she would get stronger, how she would grow.

By the time Haley started school, my qualms were nearly gone and it was a celebration for both of us.  This child was born ready and I was by then . . . seasoned. Her eagerness and enthusiasm amazed me and her approach to life conveyed a bravado that probably has a lot to do with who she is, though, I like to think it may also have something to do with who I’ve become as a mother.

I unwrapped Sydney’s arms from around my neck and pulled back to look at her. I wiped a tear that pooled beneath her glasses. Maternal fire surged through my veins, leaving me no choice. To protect is my first and strongest archetypal instinct. The same fire that all those years ago led me to shroud Melissa completely from her first day experience won’t let me leave Sydney this way. But unlike then, I know she can face her fear and come out on the other side, triumphant. And I need to let her.

“See that girl over there at the other table?” I nodded in the direction of a quiet girl, sitting alone holding her backpack. She appeared wary, maybe even nervous, but when she saw Sydney, she smiled and Sydney waved back. “You’re going to make new friends,” I said. “It’s going to be great.”

I stayed through class, backing away to line the wall. Close enough to be present and still let my daughter begin her solo flight. As the period ended, the students prepared to change classes. Somehow, through the noise and chaos, Sydney found the right line and in it, a friend from last year.

“Look, Sydney!” I said, gesturing. 

“Adam!” she cried, coming to life and running to give him a hug.

“Time to go, kids,” the teacher said, sending them off. With a smile and wave to me, she fell in behind Adam and walked away.  Now I can leave.

I turned and headed back down the stairs, caught off-guard when a familiar feeling suddenly surfaced, tears gathering at the backs of my eyes; sinuses stinging, throat tightening. Every time it is a leap—releasing my children into the ecosphere. Yet, with every letting go, there remains the chance to replace fear with trust, to replace doubt with belief.

Sydney’s first day of seventh grade felt the same as Haley’s first day of kindergarten, when she lined up with the other little ones, timid and unsure, but hopeful. It felt the same as Jeremy’s first day of eighth grade at a rural junior high in a small town where he was the new kid from the city. It felt the same as Melissa’s first semester at college, when I settled her into a dorm room then drove hundreds of miles away, leaving her for the first time on her own.

Like a mother bird with her brood, the time inevitably comes to teach the fledglings to fly. As the babies perch treacherously on high branches, hopping and twitching, flapping their wings and squawking incessantly with helplessness, the mama swoops in and out, coming close, but then flying off again. All the while she answers with her own cries as if to say, “You can do this!  I’m right here.”

Taking my cue from nature, I coax my chicks from the nest. They can’t stay here forever and God knows I don’t want them to. They will be scared. They will fall and they will even get hurt. But this is how they learn. By discovering how capable they are, they leap into their potential, taking wing and soaring into their own wide world.  And I’ll be calling, “You can do this!  I’m right here. I always be right here.”

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Filed under Adolescence, Down syndrome, Growing Up, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting, Special Needs

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