This weekend, my nine-year old boy got a cold. His coughing and sneezing were rampant enough to keep him home from church this morning. I made the mistake of mentioning this possibility in front of my twelve-year old daughter last night and–wouldn’t you know it?–at about nine p.m., she told me she wasn’t “feeling good.” You can imagine how much worse she was feeling this morning. But because she’d been lethargic herself for few days, I let her stay home as well. Grand total: three out of five family members missed church today. That’s one mighty wicked tribe.
Dropping my oldest daughter off at the chapel I realized that, since my middle daughter was staying home, I could have come to church today after all. My “sick” daughter could have easily babysat my son, and a few hours in front of the tv by themselves would have passed quickly. I felt a tad guilty all of a sudden, missing my Sunday meetings when I really didn’t need to. I mean, it’s not like they need me to dress and feed them anymore. It’s not like they need me to rub their back and loosen up their coughs. It’s not like they need me to measure out their medicine and deliver it with an applesauce muffin and a glass of milk.
Now that I think of it, my older kids don’t really need me anymore–at all. They can get themselves showered, they can get themselves dressed, they can pour their own cereal, they can read their own books, and they can operate the remote control–which serves, thankfully and tragically, as a proxy parent all too often. So as long as an older kid’s around to watch my youngest (who could actually function just fine by himself were it not for those pesky CPS folks), I really don’t need to be home with them much at all, even on sick days like this one. The T.V., a blanket, and some Sprite–what more could a kid with a cold long for? And when they’re healthy, what could I possibly do for them that a locked front door and a Costco-filled pantry couldn’t?
One of the reasons we moms struggle with our toddlers becoming children becoming tweens becoming teens is that with each new phase of life, they seem to need us less. And with each new liberty that arrives (the grocery store by ourselves! who knew what wonders awaited?) comes a deflating punch of disappointment. (You made your own sandwich? Good job, sweetie! Now mommy’s going to sit on her bed and cry for awhile.) We start to question the validity of how we’re spending our days and thus spending our lives, because who are we without children who need us? They go from helpless to semi-functioning to independent so quick-slow, and then one day not only do they not need us, they don’t want us. At least that’s what they’ll say.
These thoughts took shape as I made muffins and measured out Ethan’s cough syrup this morning. I should be at church right now, I chided myself. They could have stayed home alone; they would’ve been fine. That much was true. But after an hour, I told them to turn the tv off and either nap or read. My daughter came into my room where I was folding laundry, flopped down on my bed, and moaned.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
“I just don’t feel good,” she said.
“Well then, get under the covers and I’ll bring you something. What would you like?”
“Cranberry juice and corn chips?” she asked without missing a beat. (This had obviously been thought through.)
“Be right back.” I knew I was spoiling her. I knew sugar and salt weren’t going to make her feel any better. I knew she wasn’t deathly ill and I knew she probably could have managed a few hours at church today. But I didn’t care. I went downstairs for the cranberry juice and corn chips, and found Ethan sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space.
“E, do you want a muffin?”
I warmed him a muffin then told him to take a hot shower.
“Do I have to?”
“Yes. It’ll make you feel better.” (Not to mention, I thought, it’ll allow you to change out of the matted tee and basketball shorts you’ve been wearing the last 36 hours.)
He ate the muffin, took the shower, and joined his older sister on my bed. They curled up together as I stood at the foot of the bed, folding and stacking the clean clothes. It was a quiet scene, utterly non-descript. I wouldn’t call it a Magical Motherhood Moment; I wouldn’t say that the clouds parted and I was taught a life-altering lesson. But I will say that in that moment, I was glad I was there. I was glad that I was the one getting their juice and chips and muffins, even though they could’ve gotten it all themselves. I was glad that, though we weren’t talking much, we were in the same room together. I was glad they had the assurance of my presence; I was glad they weren’t alone.
Standing over the rumpled heap of blankets-pillows-bodies, I remembered my own sick days as a child when, after passing the long hours alone in front of the tv, my busy working mother would finally come through the door. Her arrival was always something of a revelation; the empty, silent house suddenly filled with her warmth and purpose. I wouldn’t get up right away, just lay and listen gratefully to the comforting sounds of Mom in the Kitchen: running water and clanging pans, boiling noodles and “who ate the olives?” (It was usually me.) I didn’t need her to fawn over me and put a damp washcloth on my forehead (though she often did, to my delight.) I just needed to know she was there. I just needed my mom.
I believe that our growing children need us as much as they always have. It’s just that now they call their needs “wants,” and so we, being the strict mamas we aspire to be, often dismiss those “wants” as demands, and we roll our eyes and say, “Hmph. Teenagers.” Or “Hmph. Middle-schoolers.” Or “Hmph–nine-year olds!”
Do my growing children need me to tell them to take a shower, or help them put on a fitted sheet, or make smoothies with them, or drive them to the mall? Do they need me to hang around the house–even when they’re ignoring me as they study or watch tv–just for the sake of knowing I’m there? Do they need me to ask them, over and over and over again, “What happened at school today?” with the determined hopefulness that, one of these days, they’ll actually answer? And do they need me to listen when that answer finally spills out from them with all the angst and confusion of the adolescent hormones that are raging within? Do they need me to remember that I’m not the only one sideswiped by their changing moods and bodies? That they are the real victims of this strange reality called growing up, and that however tricky it is for me, it’s infinitely more so for them?
I would say yes. I would say yes, our children need us to do all of these things. But mostly, they need us to forgive them for not admitting that they need us. And to recognize that when they say, “I want this,” what they mean is “I need you.”
And I think, when possible and reasonable, we should say yes.
Yes, I can drive you to the mall, so you can get away from your siblings and feel like you’re finally stepping into the Great Big World beyond our house.
Yes, I’ll watch What Not To Wear with you, again, so we can stop everything and snuggle together on the couch, like we did when you were little.
Yes, I”ll ooh and ahh over the “bridge” you just built on Minecraft, so you’ll know that you are still worthy of my rapturous attention, even though nobody else is fussing much over you these days, now that you’re big and not oh-so-cute anymore.
Yes, I’ll make homemade muffins when you reallyreally ask for them and I’ll rub your back when you reallyreally want me to, so that you can feel the comforts, singular to childhood, of a sick day home with mom.
Yes, I’ll drive and watch and fuss and bake, because what you’re really asking me to do is to listen, listen, listen–and then listen some more. Not just to what you’re saying, but to what you’re not saying, and feeling, and not able to say you’re feeling. Yes, I will be there, just for the sake of you knowing I’m there.
And so, dear moms, when we miss church or work or the gym to take care of our kids who can–by now and on paper–take care of themselves, don’t be disheartened by the seeming futility of it all. They may be able to whip up a box of Mac ‘n Cheese all by themselves, but they need to know you’re in the next room in case the dishtowel–or their awkward, changing, inexplicable heart and mind–catches fire. It can happen so fast, and you never know when. But you do know that, when it does, you’ll be there. Because your kids–your nine-month and nine-year and nineteen-year-old kids–still need you.