Between now and the end of the year, my husband and two sons, ages 8 and 11, have three separate trips planned without me. The first, in August, is a road trip to three different East Coast baseball stadiums. The next one, in September, is a "boys' weekend" with my husband's father, brother-in-law and nephew to see a football game in St. Louis. The final trip involves a weekend at The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. You may notice a theme here. During this past football season, I was able to teach a graduate school class with very little disruption to the rhythm of our family, as every Sunday I had eight hours to myself to write my lecture for the week.
My sons pretty much hang on my husband's every word. Whether he is telling a story about something funny that happened at his job as a school counselor or a story about something funny that happened when he was their age, they are generally enthralled. But mostly, they talk about sports. Football, baseball and hockey dominate our dinnertime conversations. They talk about what happened in a game, what might happen in an upcoming game, what happened in an amazing game from a decade ago, who is injured on their favorite teams, who might get injured on their favorite teams and how that team might look next season. I just sit quietly.
It wasn't always this way. For many years, I was the more essential parent. Both of my boys were stuck to me like glue until around age 6. If they slept in our bed after a bad dream, they would smush their little bodies up against mine, tucking their cold feet under my legs. As toddlers, my older son in particular would create a huge commotion every time I left the house, even though my husband stayed home alone with him many times a week. He would be totally bereft before I left and for a while after might even stay slumped against the front door. The calling out in the middle of the night was always, absolutely always, for "Mama."
My husband was always so patient about this. He never took it personally, he never complained of feeling left out or rejected and he accepted the fact that they gravitated towards me much of the time. My husband vividly remembers what it felt like to be a little boy. Although he adored his fun and playful father, he felt utter and complete safety with his mother. I can't think of a single time that my husband struggled with this dynamic.
And so, now the bar has been set pretty high. There are times when I wonder if I am going to be able to pull off pretending to be cool with how totally obsolete I often feel in my family. The truth is, I find it painfully familiar. There were times I felt outside of the group in my own family growing up. was alway less likely to go with the flow than my cheerful older sister -- whether it was being a picky eater as a child or turning into a somewhat surly teenager later on. Sometimes I wondered if my parents and sister felt more relaxed when I wasn't around. I think my own mother felt outside of the group at times too -- like when she went on a work trip and we celebrated with as many nights of junk food that we could possibly squeeze in. The role of mother as killjoy is at least centuries old.
Recently, I was talking to my sons about the upcoming baseball road trip and warning them to prepare for what a long time it would be to sit in the car. "You're just saying that because you don't want us to go and leave you alone at home," my older son said. I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me. "That's not true at all," I protested. But it wasn't entirely untrue. I was sad to be left out of the crowd, and he knew it.
To be clear, my sons are not the kinds of kids who grunt "fine" when you ask them how school was. They both can talk with me for hours about recess, something funny their teacher said, current events and friends, and they love hearing my stories from childhood as well. I am still permitted to hug them and even, sort of, kiss them. They still seem pretty pleased to see me when they get home from school or when I walk in the door from a late night at work. But there does sometimes seem like a big gulf between us. The topic that they are by far the most passionate about is a topic that I know almost nothing about.
So I do my best to get interested in the sports that they love and why it is they love them so much. I want to know them -- who they really are, what makes them tick, what they hate and what has meaning to them. It's just a lot more work for me right now than it is for my husband, and I can't help but worry at times, as crazy as it is, that they will somehow not understand how much I love them for who they are. I want to squeeze them and squish them until they get it, but I know better than to do that to school aged boys. So I just wait patiently for those little moments when I can provide them with the kind of interaction that, for some reason, only I can deliver. Sometimes it's just cutting my 8 year old's finger nails -- my husband is still terrified of that. But the last time I did, in the quiet of a steamy bathroom after his shower, I got a great story out of him. I'll take what I can get.