I’m not sure when it happened, but all of a sudden, my son has crossed over into the “independent reader” section of the library. He isn’t interested in the picture book area, nor the bins of educational toys in the kiddie space that used to entertain him in prior phases of his live. Aidan simply wants to select a few comic books on his own and chill out on the big kid couch. Today we had an impromptu trip to the library to return a few books and get out of Daddy’s way at home while he did some work. After getting his Summer Reading log stamped from the librarian, Aidan heads down the graphic novel aisle, pulls a few superhero and Star Wars hardcover comic books, and makes himself comfortable on the couch furthest away from the noisy children’s area. Feeling idle, I look at my little guy and dare to try something I’ve never done at the library with him before. “I’ll be right back,” I say.
“”K,” Aidan casually replies as I trail away to the adjoining fiction section backwards, eyeballs firmly gripped on my son’s small head. Quickly, I scan the aisles looking for a book that grabs my attention. In all these years, I have never attempted looking for books for myself at the library with Aidan. It seemed pointless to try in those beginning years when we made regular trips to our different library chains to meet friends for Storytime or to play with the toys there.
I recall my very first trip to the library when Aidan was a brand new baby. “I can do this,” I mistakenly thought. Back then, I hadn’t yet learned that Aidan was not like every other baby I thought I knew; he would never come to be OK with being placed in a stroller, never fall asleep in public, never prefer to suck on a pacifier and be silent, never be content with just holding some chewable toy, and never ever for a second let you forget that he demanded constant don’t-you-dare-look-away-for-even-a-second attention. I stood there in my post-partum maternity summer capris, rocking Aidan in his spanking new stroller and staring down the aisles of parenting books, feeling good about my outing, as if I was still a normal person in the world of normal humans going about their business. Aidan fussed and cried. He flailed his red arms about in protest. He pushed his chest out, trying without success to bust free from the straps. I tried the pacifier, the little crinkly toys, the side-to-side rocking that my husband had already perfected. Aidan hollered and continued his stroller-revolt. Sweat started to pool on my upper lip, chest, and back. He looked up at me with angry black eyes as if to say, “what are you thinking? That you can just put me in this contraption and I’ll be cool sitting here doing nothing?” I left the library sans books, struggled a fighting Aidan out of his torturous stroller and into his even-more torturous car seat, dripping from the hazy July sun and returned home to nurse my strong-willed boy in front of the air conditioner, still shaken with naïveté, still so raw from my entrance into motherhood and selflessness.
In later months, the library became the weekly place of communion between me and other mothers finding their way out and about. We made cross-legged Storytimes and Itsy-Bitsy Spider songs and sleigh-bell shaking our important and crucial business each week. As our infants crawled around each other and drooled atop wooden blocks, we touched the surface ever so slightly on the real issues of parenthood, the stories and questions and uncertainties inside our hearts still waiting to be quenched with solace. There simply wasn’t enough time in our 45 minute baby class to share what we really wanted to share about alienation, selfish impulses, fear, and self-doubt. Instead, we joked about stretch marks and checked in on each other’s teething statuses before heading to our cars to go our separate ways for naps.
Even later, as Aidan grew into toddlerhood, the library was merely another place where I chased and chased and chased my itty bitty son as he took off constantly. It almost didn’t matter where I was those days; it was all the same blurry, sweat-inducing dash. Aisles of bookcases were like runways to his unstoppable legs and the four-walled empty meeting room where Toddler Time took place was exactly the confinement Aidan wasn’t going to go for as he jetted towards the door whilst all the other kids seemed to sit contently with their Cheerios. Then, magically, over the last couple of years, the library transformed into a sanctuary for my son’s growingly insatiable curiosity and love of reading. At two and three, Aidan became all business when it was time to head to the library. In his marine biology phase, he pleaded for me to read every single book on deep sea critters and fish. We’d squeeze in together on the smallish loveseat and devour each find. We’d spend hours engrossed in whatever Aidan’s obsession of the month was, and I’d wobble on my knees down the aisles of books, head tilted, pulling as many pieces as I could find that fit his current interests. “Ooo! Can you read this to me?” Aidan would ask, already taking his place on my lap before I would have a chance to answer.
Today though, as I experiment with leisurely stepping away and trusting my growing boy to stay in one place while I try to look for something for myself, I feel uncomfortable and awkward, as if I am in the process of relearning a basic skill after years of being out of practice. Isn’t that always the case with motherhood – despite my son’s growing independence, I am nevertheless utterly rusty at being relaxed in my own, lonely skin. I think of those that lose their memory and other functions from trauma and must relearn everything they once knew. Aren’t we as mothers always in a perpetual state of beginning again; striving to reclaim parts of ourselves that have been lost to parenthood – the phantom limbs that extend from our souls, the ones we still believe are there, but haven’t quite been able to touch since childbirth?
I feel rushed and distracted. I drift blankly down a few more aisles, this time allowing the distance between Aidan and me to grow until he is completely out of my vision. I think of the future, and of how I will be releasing Aidan from my supervision in larger increments each year and each phase of his life, until he no longer needs any at all. The notion both excites and terrifies me. It has only been a few minutes since I’ve been away from Aidan but images of him somehow getting up, leaving, or engaging in some verbal scuffle with another preschooler travel irrationally through my brain.
A few moments later, I return to Aidan’s couch empty-handed. I am pleased, but not at all surprised to see his small brown head still motionless as he sits and skims through the same comic book. I creep behind him, not wanting to interrupt him or break his casual yet intense focus. I glance at the rest of the kids in this wing of the library, all larger and lankier “big” kids with their long limbs extending over the arms of the couches as they read their chapter books quietly. And I think of how long I’ve waited for moments like this, where my son and I are together alone; two separate entities that belong together but do not need to be so constantly. I feel like I’ve gotten strange looks my entire career as a mother whenever I say I cannot wait for Aidan to get older. I retrace my words, and joke that I am missing the gene that makes a woman want to keep her baby a baby forever, but it doesn’t seem to help others’ confusion. “It goes so fast, don’t rush it,” older ladies warn me longingly. But the truth is – Aidan has never seemed comfortable in his own skin until lately, as if he was somehow born trapped by the limits of newbornhood and dying to break free from it. In those first few moments of his life and after the initial euphoric joy I felt, I also looked down on him and understood that his huge black eyes were frustrated in a way I have never seen in new babies; an old man aging in reverse. I feel like I’ve spent his entire life trying to satiate his impatience with incapability. And now, finally, I can sense Aidan’s relief. This is who he has been waiting to be.
Standing behind him as he reads, I am a voyeur to his experience as a big kid. And, I am irreversibly not needed in his life in the way I’ve always been. I feel the twinges of mindfulness flutter deep within my chest. My baby is not a baby anymore. It’s a recognition I’ve looked to with excitement, and I am at once exhilarated and overcome with sentiment. Put this image to memory. I tell myself this over and over, and my heart makes peace easily with moving on; onto the next moment in our everyday mundane life as mother and son, onto the next phase in Aidan’s growth, onto his eventual teenage years and manhood. I can feel all at once how utterly special it is to feel emotional about a child’s growing up, and yet respectfully get out of its way and remain a spectator. To stand back and witness the unfolding without letting sentiment interfere with nature.
“Are you ready to get going, babe?” I ask Aidan.
“Yeah, in a minute,” he sighs casually. I love our nonchalant exchanges these days. I do not miss the tantrums and miscommunication of earlier years. Aidan gathers the books he wants to bring home and we make our way down the long library to the checkout counter. Along the way, I pass the ghosts of our former selves down each aisle. I see the harried, frazzled spirit of who I was as a brand new mother, alien-like and dazed. I see the strong-willed defiant ghost of Aidan running down the bookshelves. He disappears behind a row of books, and I draw my attention back to the real Aidan, who marches forward in front of me. Somewhere in the horizon ahead of him, I can make out another hazy spirit; a woman, her pace slowed and intentional. I try to follow her ghost but she drifts too far and out of my vision. Is she who I will grow into, the relaxed mother of an older child? Will I learn to be as comfortable in my own skin as my son has finally become? I will find my way to this woman. In the meantime, I follow behind Aidan. He knows the path, and I trust his lead.