My firstborn son was a snuggler from the start. Moments after Ryan's birth, he nestled into my welcoming arms and looked up at me with his baby blues as if to say, "So, you're my mommy!" He was a perfect fit as he molded to my body, eagerly nursing around the clock. Our favorite activity was curling up with each other to nap on my bed, basking in the cocoon of love and security we had miraculously created.
As he grew, Ryan was always a hugger and a kisser, offering constant unsolicited pronouncements of his love. At age three, deep in the Oedipal stage, he declared I should forget about Daddy and marry him instead.
That's the way it was—until my son became a tween. He no longer had a tolerance for overt displays of affection, especially in public. The child who was once permanently fused to my hip, no longer wanted me to escort him into the schoolyard, let alone kiss him goodbye, in case anyone he knew should happen to see. Whenever possible, he walked several paces ahead or behind me, pretending we weren’t together.
When I said goodbye, he ducked out of the way. Once, after I planted a rare kiss, I caught him wiping off his cheek, removing all invisible traces of my affection with his over-sized T-shirt.
My baby was growing up. Yes, I should have known those days were coming, but I never expected them to arrive so soon. One minute I could make the boo-boos all better; the next it was as if I had developed a serious case of the cooties.
One of the greatest challenges for a mother raising a son is accepting that he has to pull away. It's a boy's developmental task to separate from his mother in his quest to eventually become a man. While girls can identify with mom for the rest of their lives, boys between the ages of six and 10 begin to reject mom as their primary role model as they try to become more like dad or other men in their lives.
Knowing that, however, doesn’t make it any easier. Like the pain of labour that no one really tells you about, no one prepares you to be rebuffed by your own flesh and blood. While you carry your children next to your heart for nine months when you are pregnant, you spend the rest of your life letting them go.
And so, I did. Just as I had let go of his hand when he tentatively took his first steps, and later released his bicycle as he rode off towards independence, I let him take a leap into the world away from me as he cleared another hurdle toward manhood.
I decided to take my cues from Ryan, giving him room to grow up, while I stood a safe distance away, ready with love, praise, support, and of course, hugs and kisses should he need or want them.
I eagerly joined in the occasional snowball fights and games of tag that he still wanted to play with me. I knew that the days when I would be his first choice as a playmate, or even his last, would soon end, too.
After one lively catch, Ryan casually held my hand on the way home. "You're good at catch, mom," he said in reverential approval, swelling my heart more than a dozen public displays of affection ever could.
Out at a restaurant, Ryan and I sat next to a mother and her grown son as they discussed their travels, work, and plans—together and apart. I was struck by their easy companionship, more friends than parent and child. I watched as the mother learned something new from her child and their long-time roles reversed.
I now understand a basic truth of parenting: Although you can never recapture the tender devotion of an infant, or the unconditional affection of a toddler, as time goes on you replace one intimacy with another. Your relationship becomes less physical but more cerebral. Through conversations with your grown child in which you both share hopes, dreams, thoughts and feelings, you may actually become closer than ever.
While I realize that at times mothers are from Venus, while sons are from Mars, I’ll stay in Ryan's orbit for as long as I can. I hope that one day when he reaches his destination, he will once again be comfortable giving and receiving my affection, no matter who's looking.