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The longest breakup? It started before I was ready

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Being the mother of a son is like someone breaking up with you really slowly.” (credit: The Otherhood, Netflix).

Dear God, yes. Truer words were never spoken and all that mumbo jumbo.

My son, a junior in high school, comes home daily with updates that are like daggers to this mother’s heart. Just yesterday he wanted to tell me which classes he was thinking of for this final grade school year. I believe my response was somewhere between “WHAT?!?! Your SENIOR year!?!?!” and “Sign up for whatever you want, you’re not leaving me when it’s over.”

So, yeah, I think I handled it well.

The thing is, we are not only at our last child to leave the nest but that last child is a son. My son. Our first child left the nest twice (a minor pandemic hiccup) but with her, the transition was easier. Perhaps because that first child had packed her suitcases the minute she returned home from the first day of kindergarten.

Raising girls and raising boys are two very different experiences. And it isn’t about levels of love or preferences or any of the other things that might cause someone to accuse a mother of playing favorites. There is just something different in mothering the two. There is something special between mothers and sons just as there is something special between fathers and daughters.

I suppose this “longest breakup” is so difficult for me because, in many ways, my son and I grew up together. On paper, I am his (step)mom. In reality, I have been his full-time mom since he was seven. With no biological children of my own, this once very small child had a front-row seat to my entry and growth into motherhood. He was witness to so many moments during which I felt that I would never “get” the whole mothering thing, yet he never slinked away.

Instead, he offered me endless patience.

My daughter was nearly eleven when I dove into this role of (step)mother. She was already much more clear on who she was and what she needed (or didn’t) from me. We alternated between relational speed bumps and wins. We leaned towards all-out battles when the collision of hormonal teen and menopausal mom occurred. She had been independent since her arrival, yes, but my father and I still believed that her official springboard from home would involve the shedding of at least one tear. Instead, we learned that girls really do just bust out, ready to put a stamp on the world that has been calling to them.

With both of my children, January has always arrived with a hint of sadness. January means another milestone is on the horizon as the end of the school year comes into focus. Why is that? January is not even the actual halfway point yet it always screams “Your children will be going to the next grade before you can even blink!

For me, January arrives with a tone of finality though it is earmarked as a new beginning.

When the calendar turned to this new year, a swirling started quietly in my head: this year will be the one in which my son begins his senior year.

I am not prepared for this.

I have neared a minor meltdown more than once over the last months as the weekly notes from the school landed in my inbox. Do they have to include the “Class of 2023” reminders in the same thread? Do they not know there the mothers of the juniors are reaching a low-level panic? Knowing that next year’s notes will include “Class of 2024” and will be referring to our children?

There is a marked shift happening between my son and me. There is a shift happening in how he fits into our home.

For years, I have made every effort to break from work the moment he stepped off the bus. For years, his first stop after school has been on the couch in my office where we talked about what we did while we were away from each other. And while I may have begun to lose track while hearing about his advanced classes, the time together still matters.

Today, he still checks in each day. But the time is shorter - more rushed - as he zings off to chat with friends or write a paper or get ready for work. The need for time with his mother is lessening with a preference to spend time with other girls that he shies away from telling me about.

When did this wonder of mine sprint beyond “child” and reach “young man?”

He has added a tone of snark to his repertoire recently. His voice is deeper and I sometimes have to look to see if it is he or his father talking. When did their voices become identical? My husband and I are beginning our second slide into the “dumb parents” category as our boy slides into the “I know way more about life than you do” stage.

Yet, this child, he keeps me on my toes.

My son will follow a moment of disagreement by offering to help with dinner. He will counter one of those walking out-the-door mumbles with a sweet text reading “Need me to pick up anything on the way home, Mama Bear?

One minute, he is announcing his displeasure with my parenting skills, and the next he is offering hugs. I think even he is confused by this metamorphosis.

I am not ready to begin what will soon become a faster-than-the-speed-of-light arrival to my son’s next chapter. January has arrived. We will soon dive into SATs or ACTs or whatever the Test Du Jour is. We will get serious about college visits, and going to schools he is actually interested in rather than test runs born from the convenience of vacation spots. Spring Break may mark the last family getaway and has already sparked a few “can’t be bothered” eye-rolls.

After, he will immediately dive into final exams and papers - probably the last ones he will really care about.

I will care a lot about those final exams. I will care a lot about that last week of school.

I will sit in silence, honoring my pledge not to make a big deal about the fact that, at the end of that week, my son come home marked as a RISING SENIOR.

I am not ready for this.

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