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Lisa Belkin

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What Really Changes When a Son Turns 21?

Posted: 03/17/2012 9:08 am

Dear Evan,

Twenty-one years ago today, I was in labor in a Houston hospital. The sun was setting and things were finally progressing, when your father suggested (he was joking, he swears) that maybe I would want to wait a few hours so you wouldn't spend your 21st birthday "surrounded by very drunk people drinking green beer."

I believe my response might have been a more colorful version of "No thank you, I'd prefer to have this baby today." And at 8:11 that night, my St. Patrick's boy was born.

The 21st birthday that seemed impossibly distant back then is now here -- and with its arrival comes my realization that I've been planning for it since before you and I had even met. It has always been out there, a momentous event, a Before and After, a bright, incandescent line, representing ... what?

That you are an adult? I used to think that's what today would mark. But as it came closer, it became clearer that 21 is an arbitrary number, and legally it's not even the most important one. You could sign contracts when you were 18, and demand privacy, and vote, and join the military without my permission. (Thank you for not doing that.) The only new right you acquire today is the right to buy a drink in all 50 states, and I suspect it will not be the first drink you have.

Perhaps what today marks, instead, is a change in our relationship? The symbolic moment when I treat you like an adult? An equal? Well, actually, we made most of those changes awhile back, too. It was sometime around your 15th or 16th birthday when I was walloped by a realization: You still needed my guidance, yes, and some oversight, sure, but the deep-in-the-muck, down and dirty raising of you was done. Your morals, your center, your essence, your core -- whatever mark I was going to leave on you had been left. You will continue to grow and change, yes -- for a lifetime, I hope. But you will be shaped and crafted by other things -- your loves and friendships, your life plans and happenstances, your choices and goals. My new "job," I saw, was to set the foundation of the relationship we would have together as adults.

We are well on our way. YOU are well on your way, which is why there are so many things that today is NOT. A new and sudden independence? You have lived 600 miles away at school for nearly three years. A jump in responsibility? You've already been contributing to (some of) your own expenses, and (sort of) cleaning your apartment bathroom, and (definitely) learning how to cook. The moment where I'd best stop giving advice and start keeping my opinions to myself? I passed that moment years ago -- and this birthday doesn't mean I will magically develop the self-restraint I haven't exactly had up until now.

So this day, which your father and I talked about way back in the delivery room, is it possible that it is simply another day?

Not a chance.

Just as your birth changed my life, and gave me a window onto the future, this birthday does too. And what I see has taken me by surprise. For all these years I was preparing to lose you a little, if not on this day, then because of what this day represents -- that the purpose of parenting is to let you go, and that I would spend today looking back on everything that so quickly slipped away.

Instead, I find myself looking forward, just as firmly as I did when you were born, and gratefully counting up not what I have lost now that you've grown, but what I've gained. An adult in my world who I like, as well as love. A certainty that you have a smart head on your shoulders, so I just might be able to exhale. A realization that I won't ever exhale completely, because no matter how grown-up you become, my own emotional compass will always be synced to yours. An acceptance that this doesn't over-enmesh me, or somehow infantalize you, but is simply what it means to be a parent.

Mostly, I see that today is not the end of anything, just another beginning. And a series of beginnings makes for a continuum. Rather than a momentous break, or a clear demarcation, your 21st birthday is quiet confirmation that your path is good, and we still walk it together -- though now you do much of the leading, and Lord knows I won't ever carry you, literally or metaphorically, again.

I don't stop being your mother because you are an adult.

You are no longer my baby. But you will always be my child.

All my love,

Mom