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14 Things I Still Don’t Know About Motherhood

After the last child leaves home, there are still a lot of parental duties remaining

By Mary Dell Harrington

Our youngest child has begun her senior year in high school, meaning I have begun my last year with a child at home (at least on a permanent basis). In 12 months’ time, my husband and I will drop her off at her freshmen dorm and wave goodbye. As we turn toward home, will I feel like I am on the long, melancholy road to the end of motherhood?
There will certainly be tears shed on the drive back, but I actually plan to look toward my future, not the past, in parenting. While I can speak with some authority about raising children age 0 to 22 (the age of our elder), I am no smug know-it-all. I believe there is still much to encounter. In fact, in the “post kids at home” stage of life, I already know there are at least 14 things I know nothing about.
(MORE: How to Be a Great Long-Distance Parent)

14 Maternal Things I’ve Yet to Experience
Early motherhood has many iconic moments, starting with the birth of a baby, her first steps, a teary separation on the first day of kindergarten, high school graduation and a goodbye hug at her first dorm room. There is much parenting to come, though, and I refuse to despair or believe my role is ending. 

  1. After we drop off our daughter at the college, the house we return to will be palpably different than the one we left. Though it will look the same, it will feel different. It will be a quiet place I haven't yet experienced.
  2. I have relied on calendars that begin in September and end in May since 1996. The glorious months of summer will never again feel like a three-month vacation from the nine hectic school months.
  3. I have not seen our children begin to work in a way that leads toward meaningful careers. To “help” them, I may be tempted to offer advice, but I will need to learn that comparing my early jobs with theirs will sound as outdated to them as my father’s quaint descriptions of using a slide rule in the pre­–digital age did to me.
  4. I have not visited them in first apartments or witnessed the way they will choose to lead their independent lives. I will need to learn a new language and syntax, in which sentences never begin with the words “You should.”
  5. I do not know what it will feel like when our children take vacations without us. They went on class trips to D.C., took spring breaks to the beach and spent junior-year semesters abroad. But we were consulted about those trips (and we paid for them). I know the day will come when I receive a text or an email, perhaps even a postcard, and realize I didn’t even know they were out of town.
  6. I have yet to welcome truly significant others for my kids into my heart and home. I hope for matches that will bring out the best in our children and their beloveds … but I also know that is not always the case. I may need to learn to manage conflicted feelings.
  7. I do not know the maternal delight of shopping for a wedding dress with my daughter, nor have I been a mother of the bride or groom. I sometimes imagine my children’s nuptials with more pixie dust in my eyes then when I was planning my own.
  8. I have not yet levitated with joy, reaching out to hold a brand-new baby, my grandchild. I have only read about what it is like to be a grandmother and suspect that gobsmacked may be the perfect description.
  9. I cannot quite imagine my daughter being a mom or my son being a father.
  10. Because my mother is a lively 86-year-old, my status as daughter is intact. I don’t know how it will feel to no longer have parents and be the matriarch of our family.
  11. Our kids have always been adored grandchildren. I do not know how they will feel when there are no grandparents in their lives, nor how I will console them in our shared grief.
  12. I have felt pain and disappointment in my own life, but I was always able to move beyond the obstacles. Neither of my children has experienced serious failure at work or in a relationship; they have not suffered a devastating loss. God forbid those things might happen, but if they do, I don’t know what comforting an adult child looks like.
  13. I have always celebrated the holidays at either our home or my mother’s. One day, we will be the ones packing to travel and ooh and ahh at our daughter’s Christmas tree. Will she buy new ornaments or ask to share all the palm-sized stuffed animals she loved hanging on our tree as a child?
  14. I don’t know how the passage of time will slow my step or rob me of the good health (knock wood) I now enjoy in my 50s. How will it feel to be unable to keep pace with our grown children and grandchildren, assuming — hoping — we are invited to do so? I can’t begin to know what motherhood will feel like when I am the one who is 86.

The Best Is Yet to Come
Oliver Sacks recently discussed his optimistic perspective upon turning 80 in The New York Times’ The Joy of Old Age. “One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’ too,” he wrote. “One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too.”
Sacks is describing his eight decades in a grand and global fashion. But reading these lines got me thinking about parenthood: the thrilling moments I have already been privileged to experience as well as the painful ones. And it made me more determined in my conviction that regarding motherhood, there is much yet to come. I’m looking forward to every minute.

Mary Dell Harrington, formerly with NBC and Lifetime Television, cofounded the blog Grown and Flown with Lisa Endlich Heffernan. Follow Grown and Flown on Twitter.

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