[Editor's note: I started this post while on the road. I am no longer on the road, but it still applies, particularly the part about love being like a marshmallow. I'm a poet, obviously.]
Every once in a while, when I'm visiting a college campus, I'll have an encounter that blasts me forward 16 years, to the days Hadley is a college freshman. I'll meet a girl with light brown hair and hazel eyes and mischief in her smile, and my heart will pull for just a second. Somewhere, I hope, that girl has a mama who is both thrilled that her daughter is a college kid and who aches a little, knowing her child won't be home for dinner until Thanksgiving.
Or a guy (calling him a "young man" makes me feel like an old woman) will say something in passing: "I wanted to be at least a plane ride away from home," or "I stayed on campus last summer to do research." What? I want to say. How did your mother handle it? Do you miss her, even a little? Have you no compassion, child?
Three years ago, I would have identified with these students. I went to college 750 miles and four states from home. I jumped at the chance to study in France, where I lived with people my parents had never met and trekked around Europe with a rail pass on weekends and breaks. ("Mom! I'm in Florence!" I'd email or, "We went to Nice for Carnivale!")
And when I graduated, I married Jason and we doubled my distance from home by moving to Chicago. Peace out, Mom and Dad.
In theory, I believe in the axiom about roots and wings. I know the line about parenthood being a process of letting go. But right now, I can't help looking at those college kids and seeing them not as peers or people like my younger self, but as somebody's kids. "You don't know how much your mom loves you," I want to tell them when they roll their eyes about how much their parents call. "You left a hole in your house bigger than the whole world."
If their parents are wise, they don't tell their kids this stuff. It wouldn't matter to them now. But if those kids become parents one day, they'll realize that it takes a lot of self-control for parents to fight the urge to hold their kids tight. I'm not much into sentimentality, but someone told me once that having a child is like watching your heart walk around all on its own. She is right.
One night, when I was in college and home for the summer, I babysat for a family down the street. I came home early enough to go out for a few hours--it was 9:30 or 10:00, and I had a midnight curfew, I think--but it was raining hard and my dad refused to let me go out. I was furious, indignant, offended. It didn't help that my 16-year-old brother had gone out already, so he was tooling around town in the very same raindrops that would blanket my route.
I didn't speak to him for three days. Gracious child, I was.
But now I get it. Sometimes that love just gets messy--like you've rolled in a giant marshmallow of it--and you can't quite contain it. And it's easy to want to hold on too tight because it feels so good and so scary to love somebody the way I love Hadley.
So it's craziness: On one hand, you love someone like you've never loved before. (It's true: Before you have a child, you think you've experienced all of the human loves: your parents, your siblings, a few friends whose lives you share, your spouse. And then your child comes along and you think, "How did I know so little of love?") And on the other hand, you're suppose to raise your child up to leave.
I feel like Hadley came along just when I felt like I had figured out a few things. Jason's and my life together was organized, lovely, predictable. I slept in on the weekends. Jason and I began our love affair with new restaurants and skiing and vacations. We talked late into the night and went out whenever we wanted. (The thrill!) Then--POW--she arrived and changed us. It wasn't very comfortable at first; it felt like growing a new appendage and trying not to trip every time I walked. What have we done? I thought. What just happened?
Oh, but then, something magical happened, and I fell in love, and the waking up early and the no-vacation policy and the frantic hunts for burp clothes stopped mattering. And then she transformed into this little person who is the most lovely company--honest and funny, creative and curious, loving and a little sassy.
And one day, she will leave and--POW--we will change again. It won't be comfortable; it will be like losing an appendage and trying to remember how to walk. What have we done? I will think. What just happened?
I've been sort of hating my project lately. (A friend sent me Winston Churchill's spot-on description of writing a book: "To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out into the public.")
BUT this project has stirred in my heart perspective that I lose some days when Hadley is being so totally two years old. It has reminded me that we're growing together, but she's also growing up so that one day, she will be an 18-year-old and off to college. I won't tell her that she has left a hole in our house bigger than the whole world. But she will.