Milestones

February 11,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Seven years and some months ago I was sitting on a love seat in our apartment in upstate New York, jiggling L. on my knees.  The sun was shining through the window, bathing us in feeble light, and it was a cold day outside--late November and winter already.  As I jiggled L. up and down and talked and sang to him he answered with wide, gummy grins, wet around the corners, eyes shining up at me.  It was during one of those wide smiles that I saw something was different.  There, on his lower gum, was a white spot!  I peered closer and prodded at it with my pinkie. It was hard and a little sharp.  I felt the fluttering feeling inside my chest that I have come to associate with the overwhelming emotions of joy/pride/love that I get when my children pass a milestone, or accomplish something great, or are just simply doing their own thing; being themselves in their wonderful, individual ways. I felt tears in my eyes at the sight of that new tooth pushing through the gum; tears of joy and, immediately, I also felt sad at the passing of the pure gumminess of his smile.

When my son turned five and was poised to start kindergarten, I remember telling an acquaintance how mixed I felt about it--how the joy of the milestone was so tempered by sadness. Why are you sad? the person asked me, looking at me quizzically as if I had just uttered something completely baffling and possibly inappropriate. And I remember feeling ashamed at first that I was sad: was my sadness a manifestation of some unhealthy urge to keep him young and at home forever? Should I be embarrassed that I wasn't more ready to pack him off to school?

I've been wrestling with the same mixture of emotions (some melancholy, many joyful) for a few days now, following my daughter's fourth birthday. I've come to realize that milestones are more bittersweet when they are passed by your last child--your baby, the one who has made you cling to and savor and devour with your entire being each and every tiny stage of infancy and toddlerhood. I wrestle with this constantly; the back and forth, tug and pull of emotions--happiness shadowed by wistful melancholy, pride elbowed aside by nostalgia. Does this happen to all parents, I sometimes wonder, or am I just too sentimental, too emotional for this parenting stuff?

This weekend my parents were in town for a special visit to celebrate my father's 71st birthday. It was the first time in years that I've been able to see my dad on his birthday--February is a tough month for travel--we're still recovering from the expenses of Christmas, and drowning in beginning-of-the-semester work.  My brother and his wife came, as well, with their own two children.  My little niece will turn two this August, and my nephew five in June. At dinner Saturday L.'s fifth loose tooth popped out into his vegetable lo mein, my niece used a spoon for the first time, and my nephew folded his napkin onto his lap.

Look at me! I'm a gentleman! He proclaimed proudly, sitting up a little straighter.

After dinner I watched my parents with their four grandkids circling around them, busy, noisy little bodies, surprising us constantly with the things they say and do. My father looked at them, his eyes crinkling up in joy, but his face a little sad, too.

I wish they didn't have to grow up so quickly, he said to me, his thirty-eight year old daughter. 

And I saw through my father's eyes what it must mean to watch your kids grow up, and your grandkids too--to celebrate the milestones once with your own children, twice with your first set of grandkids, and a third time again; the growing up part of life happening over and over again, a cycle so joyous and golden but, at the same time one that moves us apart, little by little, as time begins to separate us from the ones we love.