It seems to me that our children dance impishly along the border between infancy and childhood for years. From the moment they pick up their sippy cup and start helping themselves to the moment they wave to you from the doorway on their first day of school they are toying with the idea of independence. Some days they prance effortlessly across the line, surprising you with their capabilities and grace. Other days, they fall short and land back in your lap looking for comfort and guidance. It’s all part of growing up.
Then suddenly, without warning, they cross the line and never look back.
The other day I took my toddler to the psychology department at our local university to participate in a study on child development. We have been participating in these studies since my oldest son was 10 months old, so it wasn’t an unfamiliar experience as we walked hand-in-hand down the narrow hallways of the university, catching odd glances from the students and the occasional joke from a professor about “starting them young”.
However, today we were heading to a different room. My son was now too old for the infant studies and had to graduate to the child development lab. As a child who doesn’t do well with change, he was skeptical at first. After a few minutes of gentle coaxing, he agreed to sit next to me on the little sofa while the researcher explained the study. He rested his little head on my shoulder and stroked my arm while he pretended not to listen.
When she told me he would be participating in the study alone, without me, my first thought was, NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. This is the child who still used me as a toilet seat cover because the big toilets scare him. He wasn’t ready to sit in a room with a stranger and answer questions. Was he?
When she finished her soliloquy, I turned to the little boy hiding in my armpit on the sofa. He looked so small.
“Do you want to go play a game with this nice lady here?” I asked.
“Ok!” He exclaimed without hesitation and jumped off the sofa.
He never ceases to amaze me. He skipped off down the hall holding the hand of the stranger who led him into the interview room. There was a window between the interview room and the room where I was waiting and as I watched him through the glass I suddenly realized how grown up he looked. He hadn’t once asked for me or even looked to see whether I was there behind the glass. I’d been so surprised by his willingness to leave me behind that I hadn’t considered that I might be just as scared of his independence as he was.
He is going to start preschool next year. Each day he will leave me behind and share part of himself with someone else: a part of himself that I won’t see. I won’t even have a window through which to watch and make sure he’s all right. I won’t get to laugh at his jokes or roll my eyes when he plays little tricks on his teacher.
Suddenly, the glass between us seemed a mile thick. My little boy was growing up. That line that he used to dance across, back and forth, had turned into a wall. He was happily chattering away on one side and I was left, watching longingly from the other. I started thinking, this is what my life will be like once he grows up. He will move on, assert his independence, and I will watch proudly, happily, and a little nostalgically from the other side of an invisible wall.
The little world in which we have existed for the last four years, just us most of the time, will suddenly feel very lonely without him. His world will expand and grow, while mine will get smaller. I am so excited for him to grow up, to learn about the world, and become the man that he was born to be, but there is a part of me that will always wonder where that little boy went: the one who hid in my armpit for safety.
Just as I’d worked myself up to the point of sobbing in the little viewing room, the study was over. My son ran through the door and jumped onto my lap, excited to tell me all about the things he’d done. I hugged him tighter than he liked. I didn’t have to let go yet. I still had time. That glass wall wasn’t permanent. He breezed right through it as if it weren’t there. He beamed up at me with pride as he invited me back into his world, and I accepted greedily.
One day I will find myself stuck on the outside, looking in, as my first-born son makes his way into the wide world. But not today. Today he is still my baby, and I will enjoy every minute. That is, until the next time he refuses to wipe his own butt. Where’s the wall then?