08/18/2014 07:37 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

A Pause to Watch My Teenage Son Grow Up

Tetra Images - Rene de Haan via Getty Images

I'm sitting on the beach. The air is chilly; the heavy breeze keeps me from dipping even my toes in the water. A few adults are swimming, and some kids run in and out of the lap of foamy surf.

My daughter and husband are nearby, digging a deep hole in the sand between the dry spot I've claimed and the water's edge. My son, however, has walked away from us. He is far down the beach, too far to see. I peer along the shoreline seeking a body with his gait, his teenage lankiness, but he is somewhere beyond my view.

Yesterday, I struggled in my decision to come here. Struggled against my to-do list. Against the unopened bags of mulch in my backyard and the pile of laundry in my basement. Against anxiety and fear of not "getting things done," the catchall phrase under which all parental busyness is classified.

This day at the beach, unlike others we've had, was optional for me. It wasn't planned as a family trip, a day for the four of us to share as a unit, being "us" in our unique quirkiness, our fights and jokes. Instead, its impetus was my son's wish to see his girlfriend, who lives in our town but is spending her summer at the Jersey Shore.

The girlfriend with whom he's walking toward Delaware right now.

The girlfriend who is the reason I'm pretty sure my son will come back to the spot where I'm sitting, wondering whether they're holding hands as they walk, because no one is going to steal two tall teenagers from a crowded beach, right?

But she's also the reason I can now more fully visualize the day when he won't come back to me. Because I won't be there on the beach waiting, worrying about his safety, asking myself whether he put on enough sunscreen. Nor will my husband, or any other adult. My son will be an adult looking out for himself. He will drive to the beach, pay for his own badge, buy himself pizza, meet his girlfriend or friends or whomever he chooses, and walk for miles if he wants.

Last night, when I ultimately decided to accompany my husband and kids in spite of the peace of mind a day of domestic accomplishment would have bestowed, I said yes because a moment of maternal wisdom shot through my resistance. The mulch could wait. The laundry could wait. My pen would eventually have the satisfaction of drawing lines through the words in my calendar that keep me on my toes and sometimes away from what's really important. I'd hardly spent any time with my son and his girlfriend. I wanted to see for myself how they act around each other rather than pepper my husband with questions questions questions when he got home, the answers to which could never be thorough enough. I wanted to learn more about the kind of person my son's girlfriend is, and who he is when he's around her. When would I have a chance like this again?

I didn't know what I expected to find out, but I knew I needed to be here.

Here. Where I'm sitting still but feeling the world, my world, moving forward. I'm happy and satisfied because in the immediate hours before I arrived at this spot I realized that my son has chosen a kind person to spend his time with. Someone who's willing to share her roller-coaster seat with her boyfriend's little sister while the boyfriend sits behind them. Someone honest and direct enough to acknowledge that half the eighth-graders at school think my son's beat-boxing habit is annoying (although the other half think he's pretty good).

And I'm happy because my son has been relaxed. Comfortable with his girlfriend making his sister, who often drives him crazy, happy. Accepting of her acknowledgment that some of his peers prefer he keep his musical talents to himself. And in spite of being a deeply private person, he's safe enough in his own skin to allow this day to happen.

Yes, I'm content and relieved, but I also feel like I've been plopped down without warning on a long high-speed conveyor belt to the future. Somehow the combination of my son's excellent choice in a girlfriend and his self-possession make it seem as if he became an adult during the hour-long car ride that got us here.

Here. Where the sun lights up the water and the wind sprinkles grains of sand in my hair.

Here. The end, almost, of a long winding highway of science experiments, Lego creations, Cub Scout meetings, school projects, screams to get off the computer and come downstairs, apologies for getting too mad too fast, discussions and decisions about how to meet his needs and help him be himself and still fit in. A dream come true, really, marked by little letting go's that get bigger all the time.

The biggest letting go, at least that I can conceive of, is thankfully still four years away, and certainly he will keep growing and changing in those four years. Yet the idea that he has been formed, that his person has become what it was meant to be, sits comfortably with me in my spot on the beach. I feel like I know him, the him he will forever be, and oh boy do I like him.

Eventually they come into view. All nearly six feet of him, and her almost as tall. Soon we will drive her to her family's beach house and then go home. He will be all ours again, although a little less so.