Independence Day has come a bit early in our house.
As a mother of just one, all my maternal energy is focused on my single offspring. With no sibling living full-time in our house, Emmet gets all my attention–undivided and unsolicited. I watch every tennis lesson, bring him to every birthday party, and beg him for all the minute details of his day: who he sat with on the bus, what games he played during recess, and exactly what he ate for lunch.
While I am lucky to have three lovely teenage step-kids who dote on Emmet, he is my only biological child. One of the pitfalls of being an only child is having a mom who clutches to moments and milestones, knowing that each one is the first and last time she will be able to experience it. I know, I know: in order to fly, baby birds need to leave their nests, snag some air space, and spread their wings, sometimes with a push from their mamas. But sometimes, their mamas need a push, too.
This became abundantly clear these first days of summer.
As an English teacher and essay-writing coach, I had resolved to write every day this summer. In reading an interview about Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing process, she discusses how she does her best writing in the “secret morning hours,” before the world can “chase her down.” The idea appealed to me and I decided to try it, fully understanding that my 5-year-old would chase me down by 6:30 a.m. at the latest. If I was really going to use the wee morning hours to write, I would have to prepare Emmet.
At dinner one night, I told him about my plans to write for one hour, early each morning, while he was still sleeping. If he happened to wake up early, he was going to have to be independent.
“What’s in-de-pen-dent?” he asked.
“It means you are going to have to do some things on your own,” I explained, as his expression changed from confused to delighted. While I would like to think that he was imagining an hour curling up with his favorite books, I knew that he was really envisioning 60 whole nag-free minutes of Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy.
“And no screens,” I added, watching him scrunch his face into a pout. I had decided that this hour was going to be, for both of us, productive.
I showed him where his breakfast would be in the morning, and we came up with a list of activities that he could do by himself: read books, play with the colored clay we bought over the weekend, build with some of his 10 gazillion Legos, or draw pictures.
I hadn’t realized how seriously he would take this bit of independence until that first morning of our new routine. My alarm screeched at 5:30, and I rose, filled with the purpose of a highly-regimented day that had been committed to a spreadsheet. As I stumbled out of bed to pull a sweatshirt on, I heard the rattling of the baby gate that we have yet to remove from the top of the stairs. I peeked down the hall to see Emmet, still half asleep, fumbling with the latch. I quietly followed him down the stairs, spying as he walked straight to the refrigerator to grab a pre-made cup of milk with one hand and then to the counter where a pre-poured bowl of cereal awaited him.
“Good morning, Emmet,” I said, exposing my presence in the kitchen, just as he had placed his breakfast on the table.
He turned around to beam at me, making an elaborate show of the feast of Lucky Charms and chocolate milk (don’t judge) before him.
“Mommy, see! I am indented!” he exclaimed.
“I’m so proud of you for being in-de-pen-dent!” I told him, as I made a cup of coffee.
“When I finish my breakfast, I can play with clay or read stories,” he informed me, picking out the hardened marshmallows and shoving them into his mouth.
“Right,” I confirmed. “And don’t forget to eat the cereal part of your cereal.”
As the early morning sun dappled through our bay window, I sat at my computer to write, while Emmet sat on the floor and made a small clay flower pot complete with green snaky leaves. He took out his Legos and built three colorful ships. Finally, with just a little bit of prodding, he went upstairs and grabbed two books from his room, brought them downstairs, and read out loud on the couch. We worked quietly, me tapping away at my keyboard, and he, humming a song he had learned at camp.
I never realized how much Emmet craved independence, and probably neither did he.
But for that early morning isolated hour, before camp, before making healthy-ish lunches, before anyone else can “chase us down,” Emmet and I have created space for both of us to grow. Independently, together.
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