When it comes to the firsts, I’ve never been the best mom. First words escape me. I know it was ma-ma or da-da, or some other monosyllabic chant that we celebrated as intentional. But the details? Buried somewhere in memory, along with countless other things I failed to note in the almost-empty baby books on my closet shelf.
The day each took his or her first step? I can’t recall. I remember the jubilation after; the picking up and the hugging and the twirling around and the ‘oh what a big boy/big girl’ refrain I chanted as I held each one before putting them back on their own feet, hoping for a repeat.
I have some pictures of first days at school, but not many. Some years I worked in an office, and couldn’t be there. Others they protested too much or ran too fast, and I was either too teary or too depressed or too whatever to protest harder.
Today, though, I’m wrapped up in wondering when a mom stops counting firsts and instead just wishes for the privilege of witnessing something special in the life of someone she adores. Today my big guy moves into a dorm room. A room I’ve never seen, on a campus I’ve never been, in a city I’ve never visited, in a state eighteen hours away.
Technically he’s a grown up. His dad is with him. And here I sit, on an otherwise nondescript Tuesday, sipping tepid coffee with too much cream and constantly checking my phone and hoping for pictures, all the while chiding myself for the choice to divorce his dad, wondering if I’d stayed a wife—no matter how miserable—if I’d be standing there right now, feeling small in the shadows but mighty as a mom, ushering him into this next chapter of life.
I remind myself that this isn’t about me. It’s his new adventure, and I’m giddy and excited for him. But I’m still angry. Furious that his other parent picks and chooses if and when to step up, and that the moment he picked was the one I’d been looking forward to for what seems like forever. Livid that the only way for me to be there was to say he couldn’t, and in doing that I’d do what I’d promised myself I’d never do to my children: pit one of their parents against the other. It’s exhausting, this up and down roller coaster of giddy and pissed off, proud and wistful. Yes, I can feel that all at once. The emotions don’t negate each other. Instead, they feed off of each other, mostly coexisting in some weird limbo but occasionally fighting for space in the front. Call it the roller coaster ride of being a single mom. We multi-task at everything, including emotions.
Today this single parenting thing feels like a vindictive, mean little bastard of a mirage. Just when I think I’ve got it down, that I’ve found a balance and steadied my feet, it knocks me down and dances around, cackling its sinister laugh, as I struggle to get back up and try again. It plays Russian roulette with its favorite bargaining chips: money, time, attention, money, money, and this time, it’s somehow loaded all.of.them and shot, all the while sing-songing ‘if you’d just been a better wife/mommy/person, everything would be perfect. But you weren’t. So it’s not.’
On this dull morning double digit years since I’ve welcomed a toothless, smiling, joyful baby into my arms for some mama love, about the only thing I know for sure is there’s no such thing as perfect. I know even if I’d made different choices there would still be tears, anger and disappointment. But damnit, today I’m missing a big first step. One that’s supposed to be in my photo albums: him standing in front of his dorm, rolling his eyes because I insisted on pictures. Standing in his empty dorm room, surrounded by Rubbermaid totes. One that’s supposed to assure me that after all the picking up and twirling around and hugging and hugging and hugging and putting him back down on solid, steady and ready feet, that it’s time for me to go.