07/16/2014 07:33 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Day I Realized My Child Had Finally Become An Adult

Eventually there comes a day for all parents when the pendulum swings towards your children becoming full-grown adults.

The world tilts a little and the pendulum stays there, never returning to childhood again.

I look at my daughter's face and see barely a whisper of the little girl who once reached for me with chubby hands and a baby toothed grin -- her nails are manicured, her teeth are straight and white. Her face is now all cheekbones and eyeliner. The slumped, awkward adolescent has become a tall, confident adult who moves easily in the world without me.

The little boy with scraped knees and eyeglasses perpetually in need of adjusting is now a grown man with two jobs. I listen to him on the phone talking to his employer in a voice I've never heard before -- a voice with no trace of the child I once roused out of bed each morning to get him to school on time.

I knew it would happen one day -- but for me, it wasn't college graduation, or moving my daughter into her own apartment, or her first day of her first "real" job that marked her passage into being a full-fledge grown-up. Those days were all memorable and important, steps in the direction of independence, days that I marked with photos and videos, tears and hugs and congratulations.

The day I could clearly see that my daughter was all grown up was the day she gave me this gift.

There was no reason for this gift. It wasn't Mother's Day, or my birthday. My daughter gave me this  jewelry case simply because she thought I would like it, and that I could use it when I travel. She saw it, bought it, wrapped it and handed it to me with such joy -- "Look Mom! Look what I got for you!"

It's not easy to face the fact that your children are gone -- and not just from your empty nest. It doesn't happen in a burst of adulthood on one of the momentous days we record for posterity, when they accept that college diploma or start their dream jobs. It doesn't happen when they first venture out into the world on their own. It's when the phone calls become less frequent, the questions about real life become more profound, the visits are less about coming home and more about spending time together.

It's the first time you turn to your child and say "I'm having a hard time. I'm feeling down. Can you help me?" And with the ease and maturity of a young adult, your child does.

My daughter gave me a gift much like I often do for her -- for no reason other than to let me know she loves me. I did that sometimes for my children when they were growing up -- a t-shirt for my son, a video of a favorite musical for my daughter -- not to spoil them or indulge them, but to let them know that during the course of the day, while they were off studying and practicing and managing the daily challenges of growing up, I was thinking of them.

One time when my son was a young boy he asked me a question of great importance, as he was known to do, his big green eyes suddenly curious.

"What do you do all day while I'm at school?"

It occurred to me that he probably imagined me sitting quietly in our house, waiting the six hours between drop off and pickup until I would be there, as always, waiting for him with a snack and a drink, knowing how hungry he'd be at the end of the day. But of course he did. What other purpose does a 6-year-old boy see for his stay-at-home mom but to care for him?

My son has been home for the last few weeks for a long visit, knowing that it will be months before he can take the time to come home again. He has been busy, seeing his friends and working a bit, and yet he also has noticed, perhaps with new appreciation, how I spend my time so differently than I did when he was growing up. No longer do I focus on the care of others, like I did for so many years. Some days while he's been here the refrigerator was empty, and if he wanted it replenished he went to the grocery store. There's been no clean laundry waiting for him. "Do you need money?" is rarely asked, and he hasn't asked for any, either. He's not a child, and I'm not that mom anymore.

As my children have grown into adults, I've also grown into someone I've never been before. As they've left their childhoods behind I've moved past being mommy into something...else. I'll always be their mother, but now I'm many other things -- not just in the world, but in their eyes.

The other day I cut up an apple and brought it to my son. He looked up with delight and surprise.

"Thank you!" he said.

How many apples have I sliced up for him over his lifetime? How ordinary was that, for so many years? This time it was a different sort of thing -- not the mundane act of a mother raising her child, but the simple generosity of one adult giving to another. Here, here is an apple, sliced carefully, all of the pits removed, just the sweetest part. Not because I'm your mother and am responsible for your nourishment, but because I love you and want to do something to make you smile.

It's the giving and appreciating of love, without reason or obligation or motive that finally marks the true onset of adulthood. It's the generosity of the heart that separates the child from the grown-up. It's recognizing the adults -- parents, grandparents, friends -- who have known you and and loved you all your life as vulnerable, complicated individuals. It's the awareness of the inner lives of others.

The pendulum has swung, as it should. My world has shifted, as it must. My children are gone, as they should be. In their place are two adults who give me gifts I cherish.

Previously published on Empty House Full Mind

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

10 Fun Ways For Empty Nesters To Spend Their Time