It’s only 8 at night, and when our 16-year-old son rambles home, we pounce. “Want to grab ice cream?” I invite. “What about a movie?” says my husband. Our son stares at us, impassive.
“I’m going to bed,” he says, and my husband and I exchange glances. We know that “going to bed” is code word for I’m-going-into-my-room-and-
I don’t know why I’m so surprised he’s independent. We wanted him to be that way. My parents had raised my sister and me to be dependent on them, to stay close to home, to reveal all our secrets. I, of course, balked and flew out on my own at 17, lived states away, and kept my thoughts locked up like a safe. Even now, my mom still scolds me for being “too independent for my own good” but I always considered that a plus.
Until I had a son.
Right from the start, we encouraged our son to be fearlessly self-reliant, to know the joys of spending time alone. We loved it that he had no separation anxiety when he strolled into preschool, that he felt secure enough to be able to stay at a friend’s house for hours without caring that we weren’t there, and we were thrilled when he came back home to excitedly tell us about his day. But then he entered high school and everything shifted. Nowadays, he’s only sort of here, because even when he is, he’s making plans to be with his friends, his music, his increasingly private life.
I know he’s going to go off to college and that afterwards, he can live anywhere he wants. Whether or not he’ll want to see us is frankly all up to him. The empty nest yawns in front of us and I look to experts for advice, but none of it makes me feel better. Getting busy doesn’t help since I work long hours and have lots of friends and activities. Getting closer to my husband sounds silly because we both work at home and are together 24/7. So how else to handle this?
One day, when my son’s closed away in his room, I start to write. I create a single mother character named Ava Lark, who watches helplessly as her beloved son pulls away from her, until he eventually leaves home, shutting her out. But then I write how Ava learns how to let her son go, even as she most wants to hold him close. If Ava can do it, so can I, I think.
That evening, when my son turns down an offer to go to dinner with us, instead of stiffening, I think of Ava. “Have fun at home, honey,” I say, and I see his shoulders relax. A few days later, I write a scene that startles me. The son rounds back to his mother as an adult, now secure enough in himself to truly want to visit her. I start to cry, not just because of the story, but because of my story. Because motherhood doesn’t really end when your child leaves you. It just changes. And if you’re lucky, you can change with it.
You can read about Ava Lark in best-selling author Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Is This Tomorrow, which will be released on May 7.