With three children 16, 21 and 24, I often forget what it’s like to be needed absolutely by one’s child.
But every now and then, one of them reminds me.
“Mom, I feel sick,” said my middle child, my daughter, as she prepared to leave for a day of classes at the local university. “My head is splitting, and my stomach hurts.”
I tried at first the vague, hands-off, leave-it-to-the-adult-child-to-figure-out approach I developed when my kids turned 14 and took to growling every time I asked how their day went.
“What do you think you should you do?” I said, continuing to work at my computer.
“I don’t know,” Emily said. “I’ve got a paper due, a poem I’m supposed to have memorized and an exam review that I really shouldn’t miss.”
“Is there anything you can let go of?” I asked, looking up to see my daughter.
I almost gasped. Standing before me at all of 5 feet tall – her face pale, her heavy backpack weighing her down – she no longer looked like an independent-minded college senior holding down six classes and three part-time jobs. She looked like she did when she was 3 and ate too much Halloween candy, like she was going to cry and throw up at the same time. Without flinching, the mommy in me kicked in.
“Take off the backpack and lie down,” I said.
“I can’t, Mom,” she moaned.
“Yes, you can.”
I took my daughter’s pack and guided her to the couch. I told her to close her eyes, and I began to rub her abdomen like I did when she was a little girl, clockwise in the direction of digestion. I got a hot cloth from the kitchen, laid it across her face and applied gentle pressure. I also emailed her professors and told them Emily would not be reciting any poems that day.
“Do you think they’re OK with a mom emailing them?” my daughter mumbled from underneath the cloth on her face.
“I really don’t care. Your professors know you as a conscientious student. I have never emailed a single one of them for any reason,” I said.
“Thank you, Mom. Thank you,” she kept whispering.
Eventually, as I continue to silently alternate between her belly and her face, my overworked 20-something child slipped into a deep sleep on the couch.
Indeed, Emily hardly stirred for two hours, way past journalism class and English, as the house became once again the hushed home of a sleeping child being watched over by her mother.
When she woke, we were both surprised to find that her head and stomach ache were gone. Not only that, there was an air of something clean and lovely between us. It was as if, embedded in the solidarity of mother and child, connected to some primordial memory of physical need, response and solution, we had together been restored back to something we didn’t know was missing.
I considered then the way we American parents raise our children, how we often err on the side of fostering independence – God forbid the helicopter parent – when what might be needed more than anything is a good, strong measure of good, strong mommy to the rescue.
I think of the short weekends when my 24-year-old son comes home from his high-powered life in Washington. Sitting beside me at his younger brother’s soccer game, with all the high school to see, he surprises me as he lays his head on my shoulder, and sighs. I bring my hand to his head and gently smooth his hair for a few quiet moments, as we remove back to a place of unequivocal comfort and love.
I think of my 16-year-old, entrenched in the throes of being a stoic, I-need-nothing teenager. There are those moments of clearing, between the chemistry test and the soccer game, the orchestra concert and the hormonal surges, when I know the only thing that will do is his mother.
Truth be told, I don’t know who ends up loving these fleeting moments more.
“That was a really nice morning with you, Mom,” my daughter has said more than once since the day she stayed home.
Yes, honey, I know.