If you’d asked me what the hardest part of becoming a parent was in those first months, I’d have said, “Yes.” It all felt the hardest: the shattered sleep, the crying (his and mine), the anxiety about everything, the constant nursing. The only thing that didn’t feel hard was the love that dripped down on me, a steady rain connecting me to my little boy.
But looking back, the overnight metamorphosis from being someone who moved freely through the world to one who was tightly tethered was one of the most challenging parts. At almost 35, I was used to my life, my way, my pace. My comings and goings. My bedtime, my waking up. And now, someone else dictated all of this. And when I did leave, he came with me. And not just him, but his stuff—his car seat, his diapers, and, if I remembered, his extra set of clothes.
I remember a dozen or so times when my son napped, and the old, unmothered part of my brain, the part so used to moving freely, thought briefly can’t I just go for a quick walk around the block while he sleeps? And my rapidly growing mama brain kicked in and said, no, no you cannot. You have to stay.
And I remember the first time I left my son with my husband, pulling out of the driveway feeling half elated and half like I was missing an arm, my son’s car seat bare and bland in the backseat.
I’ll admit to fantasizing, in those first months and years, about the day my son would start kindergarten, and I could return to some semblance of my old life, that old juicy untethered life I’d loved without even knowing it. Kindergarten felt forever away, like another planet, bright but distant, light years away.
But moments turned into months, and my little boy started preschool, and the twining between us stretched ever so slightly. And then my daughter was born, and again I was tied, again my leash tightened, again dripping with love.
And now, both slowly and suddenly, we’ve arrived at that far-flung planet—my son will be starting kindergarten. A golden bus will pick him up, drive him down roads he hasn’t yet seen—roads I haven’t either—and drop him off.
* * *
The other day in the car, he asked me how the first person who was ever alive could grow up with no parents. I thought about telling him about religion and science, about primates and ribs, but after a breath, I settled on, “I don’t know.” Still, my brain raced with thoughts of silver fish crawling onto land for the first time, continents sliding together and apart, an earth before flowers.
“Oh. Alice says that people come from trees,” he said. The poet in me was charmed by his preschool classmate’s mythology, but the vigilant mother in me seized the opportunity for a quick biology lesson.
“I like that. A lot. But people actually come from other people,” I said.
“How?” he asked, and I told him about sperm and eggs.
“Okay,”he said. “Mama?”
I held my breath, waiting for questions about how exactly the sperm and eggs get together, but instead he asked me a question about when I was pregnant with him.
“And there was a rope?” he asked.
It took me a moment to understand what he meant. “You mean the umbilical cord? Yes, that went from me to your belly button.”
“And then when you ate something, it went to me too?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, knowing it wasn’t quite that simple, but then again, perhaps it was.
* * *
Every night, snuggled close in his bed, he asks me to tell him funny stories.
His favorite stories are the ones about when he was smaller, the stories wrapped up in his own skin, grown over and forgotten: When you were little, instead of a stuffed animal, you liked to carry around a small jar of cinnamon. You called it mon-mon, because you couldn’t say cinnamon yet. Sometimes you even curled up and slept with it, the jar clutched in your little hand. A few times you brought it to preschool with you.
He laughs and laughs, delighted by this quirky former self. “More!” he says.
There was the time we were all taking a ride in my car to try to get you to nap. Your baby sister Violet was asleep already, and I thought you were on your way, too. But all of a sudden you burst out with, “Did Vi pop out? How did she get out of your belly?”
Or once, when you were a toddler and you and Daddy were waiting in line at Target, you said, “My belly is telling me it needs chocolate!” The lady in front of you laughed and said, ”My belly is telling me the same thing.”
I tell him these stories he’s forgotten, all these scenes that passed between us in the mountains of moments of his first years. These stories I know because of our closeness, all the days and nights spent stuck to each other, both literally and figuratively.
* * *
And now we untether.
Instead of his three days at preschool, he’ll be away from me for five days. His world will widen. He’ll learn things I’ve forgotten.
His orbit will grow. With time, he’ll swing wider and wider into the world.
With parenting, there’s so much letting go. First came the letting go of my old life, my autonomy. And even as I reclaim pieces of it as my babies grow, pieces that I’ve longed for, I am changed. So deeply stained by my love for them that multiplies, as they have, from tiny floating cells to skin and bone and heart.
The push-pull between my desire for autonomy and my desire to stay woven to my kids remains, ever-shifting. Kindergarten stretches the muscles of letting go, fraying the edges of our braid. I worry about whether he’ll make friends, if he’ll like his teacher, if he’ll be kind, if he’ll miss me.
At nighttime, and morning time, and any other time he’ll let me, I’ll ask him to tell me tales. About his teacher, about his classmates, about what it’s like to watch letters become words, and words become stories.
And I will write this all down for him, and for me, so we can remember as he moves further and further into this new locus of school and friends. I will see these new parts wrap around him, like cells becoming obsolete and replacing themselves.
Becoming tethered to my son was swift and sleek, sometimes painful. Untethering aches in a different way, slow and deep, squeezing hidden muscles of my heart.
What my son doesn’t know yet is that even as he spirals out, I’m still tied to him. Even as we both evolve, becoming future versions of ourselves, like chunks of earth rearranging. That pulsing blue-white cord he asked about is gone, but another remains. It too pulses and strains and stretches. It’s made of molecules of moments, bark and skin, dust and heat.
It’s invisible, but it’s the strongest thing I’ve ever known.