They grow up so fast, says everyone. He's so big, they marvel. Look how grown up he is now. And my heart hurts.
My oldest son, my first baby, started middle school today. It was not long ago -- not in my (admittedly addled) mind, at least -- that he was a little bundle of worn-soft white hospital blanket, tipped in the familiar pink and blue stripes, his eyes clear and blue, his eyebrows already betraying the expressive face he would grow into. He was the toddler getting his first haircut. He was the preschooler who had no problem diving right into the Play-Doh in his classroom, who didn't cling to my legs, who didn't need me to stay.
He wasn't an easy baby, an easy toddler or an easy child. He's always been a challenge. But he has grown into a more reasonable challenge; he's grown into a child I am proud to parent (a relief I cannot articulate, and a relief I hope I still have nine years from now, when we are past his teenage years). Now, his once-pudgy legs are impossibly long, and his once-doughy feet arc gracefully like an adult's. His round face is shaped by angles and planes. Only the clear eyes and the dynamic brow reveal the baby I once watched for hours on end from the navy blue recliner in my bedroom so long ago.
Last night, I labeled his folders with him. I checked off his supply lists. We went over the bus routes he would take, and we decided on what he would wear. While we prepared for his first day of middle school, his youngest brother lost his first baby tooth. His baby sister struggled to maintain her composure because she is getting a baby tooth. His middle brother, who cannot possibly be old enough to be starting fourth grade when he was once my baby, too, built and played with a Lego set all day. I resisted the feeling that we should DO SOMETHING because it was the last day of summer, and we instead had a quiet day at home.
I did not feel ready for today to come. I do not feel ready to have a child in middle school. I'm a huge ball of nerves, anticipation and grief for the baby that is now definitively not a baby anymore. I'm dreading the changes that will come with puberty that might make him look even less like my baby. I am hoping that the world will be good to him, that this transition will be smooth for him, that he will not get on the wrong bus or be so mixed up in the cafeteria that he doesn't have time to eat.
I am a middle school survivor, so I know what lies ahead. I also know that I probably don't even know everything that lies ahead, because it's not the same as when I did it 30 years ago. Of one thing I am certain: Even though he is going to a great school with fantastic teachers, middle school is the beginning of self-doubt. It's the beginning of overwhelming emotions and gymnasium dances and pain that lingers much longer than that of losing or gaining a tooth. What I remember from that time are the acute pangs of insecurity in the P.E. locker rooms, when I knew I was much more awkward and naive than some of my already-bedazzled peers; the devastation of unrequited crushes; and the tedium of navigating the social hierarchies of the cafeteria. I remember never feeling sure of foot or confident in my stride.
I am achingly aware that middle school is the beginning of something big and the end of something sweet, and I'm not ready to see my little boy change that much. I'm not ready to see him hurt, and I'm not ready to see him lose that sheen of clueless confidence for middle school insecurity. I know it's time to move on, and I know that the emotional turbulence of these tween years will hold a sweetness all their own, but I still feel like someone is pushing me off the high dive. I'm beginning to feel the tug -- the need to let go, the turn in the road where I can't see ahead -- and I'm not ready. I'm not ready, but I know I need to move forward anyway. So, when I dropped him at the front of the school this morning (because we missed the bus -- winning!), I gave him a high-five and a big smile. "This is going to be great," I said as confidently as I could muster. I didn't even cry.
When I picked him up at the bus stop today at 5:15 p.m., there was no big smile on my son's face. There was exhaustion, and maybe deflation, etched around his eyes. "So?" I asked when he tumbled into the car. "How was it?!" I saw him collapse into his seat in my rearview mirror. "Let's just say I now know the inspiration for Guns 'n' Roses' 'Welcome to the Jungle,' " he replied. [Sidebar: My son referenced G'n'R. We're obviously doing something right.]
Turns out, he sat by himself at lunch and he made no new friends in his classes yet. "Middle school is not a time to make new friends," he said to my middle son gravely. He had a long, crowded bus ride home. I felt like the boy I dropped off this morning was not the same one I picked up this afternoon. The boy I waved goodbye to had loved every day of school since kindergarten in a way that was almost obnoxious. The boy I brought home tonight seemed to have bitten the apple of Knowledge. He exuded some new, less optimistic understanding of the world. As we walked from the car into the house, I saw his eyes well up when I gave his shoulders a non-embarrassing squeeze. I know, I wanted to tell him. I want to cry too.
He will be OK. He is ready, and he can do this, and it is going to get a lot better than it was today. That doesn't mean that this is going to be awesome. Growing up can kind of suck sometimes -- for kids and for parents. As much as I want to protect him from any kind of hurt, I also know that it is necessary to have growing pains to grow. I know how stressful a middle place can be, caught as I am in the tension between aging parents and small children, perched on the edge of 40. My son is in the middle place now too, beyond the innocence of young childhood and not yet to the more solid footing of high school. I guess we can forge a path through this particular jungle together. Here we go.