I lived entirely without a cell phone until almost two years ago, when we leapt into the vast unknown of relocating to another state. A lot of people find this hard to believe. I’ve always been slow to warm up to new technology; I refused the concept of email for awhile when it first exploded into our world, I couldn’t tell you how to operate an Ipod or download music, and I can just about DVR things without help from my husband. I’m old-fashioned, and I like it that way. As for a cell phone, it just never seemed to be something I needed. I never liked talking on the phone and it never seemed like I had that many people I needed to be in touch with whenever I wanted. But when we had one month to uproot our lives and move halfway down the Atlantic coast, my husband and I knew it was time for me to keep a phone in my bag for emergencies. I’ve rarely used it - a business call here or there, a quick heads-up dial to my husband when a regular phone was not available. I just could never relate to the desire to always be available to be reached.
A year ago, my son started preschool for the first time. Within the robin-egg blue pretty paperwork I needed to fill out for new teachers was the space for cell phone numbers, work numbers, and emergency contacts. I struggled to remember my cell number but finally wrote it large and clear, afraid to make a mistake. My mind drifted to all the emergency scenarios - sickness, accidents, natural disasters - where I would need to come pick him up prematurely. What if they couldn’t get in touch with me? What if the cell phone wasn’t working as I ran my errands and traveled through town? What if the stupid thing was malfunctioning, lost, suffering from a low battery life? What then? To add to my newfound paranoia, there it was in clear, bolded type on the form: You need to be reached at all times. The blue forms epitomized parenthood for me in one brief statement. Summarized responsibility. The caring for another human being relentlessly and without pause. Being on call. Always.
Despite my broken cell phone fantasies, I naively and happily looked forward to Aidan’s preschool. Not that this was the sole purpose of why we chose to start Aidan in school at two, but after 27 months of intense and heart-wrenching childcare, I would have a whole three child-free hours to myself twice a week. A reprieve. I regarded preschool with sentimental joy and weepiness for my little guy, but also with a pent-up exhilaration for my own liberation from the hardships of constant mothering, if only for a short while. I rationalized that the former emotion of maternal concern released me of any guilt for the latter, more selfish one. Like any mother feels but is often so apprehensive to acknowledge, I just couldn’t wait for a small taste of freedom.
Aidan’s very first day of school (and his first real experience with ever being “dropped off” somewhere) went blissfully. Even back then, the pint-size fireball of independence and extroverted exuberance had no problems parting with Mommy. He waved and stated, “I love you!” before turning his back to me to play with a plastic tea set. I sat crossed-legged outside of the local coffee shop across the street that day with fellow preschool mommies. We sipped our drinks, talked shop, and prided ourselves on being able to mentally separate from what might be going on with our little ones across the way. It felt uncomfortable at first, then a little rebellious, then natural. “I could get used to this,” I thought.
The honeymoon ended on Day Two. Aidan asked me if I could stay with him, and when I reminded him that I had to go, his enormous brown eyes welled with water. As I left, and his jovial teachers distracted him, Aidan cried out for me incessantly. I sank into the wall in the hallway and slumped down to the ground to hide as I waited for the cries to dissipate. They didn’t. Naïve and dumbfounded at my independent little son’s separation anxiety, I thought, “So this is what it’s like.” I stared at the miniature coat racks, the princess and superhero lunchbags, and listened to the silence inside the adjacent classrooms amongst my son’s feisty wails. And I listened to the crash of my own tender heart as it collided with reality and spattered onto the linoleum floor in a thousand minuscule and irreversible pieces. In its place grew a truth I suddenly knew. No matter what, my soul will never be able to really separate from this precious creature. Never.
Eventually, I peeled myself from my hiding spot on the floor and stumbled dizzily across the street just as the unabashed waterfalls exploded from my eyes. I sat in the refuge of my car, misty with newfound grief. Utterly lonely. Not sure how to make sense of what I was feeling. And the only thing I could think to do was hold onto my cell phone - the only lifeline to my little boy. I cupped the little black device in my hands as if it were a fragile egg fallen from its nest, my heart fluttering in anticipation of the phone ringing. It was all I could do. Holding onto that phone, my surrogate child, I thought of the warning within the office paperwork. You need to be reached at all times. It taunted me and consoled me at once, another paradox I would have to make sense of as a mother. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be available at a moment’s notice just as the naïve notion of liberation crumbled away. I realized that separating from one’s child is not, in fact, ever separating at all.
That was Aidan’s only bout of separation anxiety with school, pretty tame in the grand scope of things. Besides a few stressful weeks when we were in the midst of moving, Aidan never complained about going to school, and never feared the Goodbye. My confidence with leaving him in the care of others grew each day, and soon, I was the mother rushing off nonchalantly at drop off time.
This week, it was back to school for a second year. As I predicted, Aidan did great his first day. He seemed like an old pro; a veteran student happy that a few classmates would be with him again in the three-year-old class, as well as one of his teachers from last year. Both of us suffering from summer burnout, Aidan and I were mutually ready to hug each other goodbye and come back refreshed from our brief absence. As we rushed out the door to get to the second day of school, I chuckled to myself, thinking back to last year’s Dreaded Day Two, and of how much Aidan has grown in a year. He’s just changed. So. Much. Gotten so much more mature; three going on thirteen. He seems like a jaded teenager at times, already rolling his eyes at things, already distinguishing between which friends he wants to hang with more and which he’s sadly outgrown. And as I suspected, he sauntered right into his class on day two, eager to get to work on the play food and kitchen.
I think of my little man and I think of how I’ve spent the last three years building a new identity for myself as mother. As nothing else but Aidan’s mother, it seems; gently setting out to sea pieces of my former self to make way for the overwhelming distinctiveness of Mother. I wonder if there will come a time when I won’t need to be reached at all times as this person, as Aidan’s safe house and anchor. And what then? Who then? Who am I if not my son’s guardian? As badly as we all want freedom from our children after a certain intense period of caretaking, I have come to realize that we may never be fully unchained from our children’s call for help, no matter their eventual age or distance. The truth is, we will always, in some way, be on call. As my son grows into a big boy and ultimately his own man, I will learn to follow the cues of when I am needed and when I am not. Perhaps the season of cupping my phone worriedly as a link to my child’s needs has ended, but a new season of motherhood can begin. I will find my way to this role.
The night of Aidan’s second school day, after his big-kid cargo shorts and polo shirt have been tossed into the hamper, after his Elmer’s glue-sticky hands have been bathed, he awakes from sleep and calls for me. Not used to being “the chosen one,” I look around confused, but my husband is still sleeping and so I wobble over to Aidan’s bed in the moonlight, as I’ve been doing his whole life. Instead of a baby staring back up at me, a boy is in his place. A man-child; someone who now has hair on his legs, sarcasm in his voice, and experience in his brow. He has had a nightmare, and looks as confused and dopey as I do. I crawl into his bed and promise to sleep with him the rest of the night. In his midnight haze, he forgets himself and nuzzles next to me. “Go to sleep,” I mumble. He follows my commands, feeling secure again; an old man recovering from a moment of dementia. As he turns over with relief, he reaches out for my hand. We lay there in the bluish still of night, underneath the glow of the nightlight that projects an aquarium image on his ceiling, and for a few obscure moments, I am unsure of which hand belongs to whom. But I know I am bound to this boy, this creature in the midst of finding his own balance between independence and reliance. I will always need to be reached, and we will journey this together, gripping hands, eternally letting go and finding our way back.