Last November, my younger child, my son, celebrated his 20th birthday on the rooftop of the bar and restaurant where he worked in Siem Reap, Cambodia. At which point I became, officially, a mother of grown children—not just because he turned 20 but also because it happened halfway around the world, on a trip he dreamed up and executed entirely on his own.
There is a lot to love about having grown children. Near the top of my own list is that since neither of mine is pregnant, it will be many years before I have to watch a Disney movie again. (Yes, I hear that Up was quite good, but as far as I’m concerned, Disney peaked with Pinocchio. If you get a chance, check out the hand-painted backgrounds of Geppetto’s workshop.)
And speaking of movies, it turns out that now, in their twenties, my son and daughter have developed impeccable taste. They are my trusty scouts in the world of popular culture, and this includes music, books and YouTube videos as well. (Have you seen the baby tearing the paper in half and falling over with laughter?) My husband and I live in rural Vermont, but thanks to our kids and the Internet, we have the best of both worlds, snow-covered stretches of open meadow and hot tips for iTunes downloads.
Then there are all the things I no longer have to endure: bake sales, sick days, head lice, sleepovers, Halloween, pasta with meat sauce (three times a week), wildly unpleasant 7 am arguments about the nutritional function of breakfast, pretending to read until 1 am while listening for footsteps on the front porch, driving them everywhere, them driving themselves everywhere, phone calls after midnight, SAT prep. I could go on.
But at the very top of the list, the thing I love most about having grown children is that they are so clearly becoming who they are and I am finally able to stand back and watch that happen. For years I imagined it was my job to mold these little lumps of clay into people who could arrive at their college interviews without food on their clothes. Now that the mission has been accomplished, I can see that my children are, to a large degree, who they have always been, those small three-dimensional people I was just too busy, and too worried, to fully comprehend.
When I was pregnant with my son, I went for a sonogram. After a few minutes of chasing him around the womb with the ice-cold magic wand, the tech said, “Is he always like this?”
“Like what?” I asked.
“I can’t get a picture of him because he won’t stop moving.”
He crawled when he was five months old, and I spent hours racing after him. Once he started walking, he headed off into the neighbors’ yards, often shedding his clothes as he went. Following the trail of miniature shorts and socks, I would find him naked, chatting (in his 18-month-old vernacular—What that? What that? What that?) with our lovely older neighbor, a grandmother many times over, a woman unperturbed by his penchant for peeing in her tulip bed.
His unrelenting restlessness got him into small scrapes and great adventures and caused his parents years of sleepless nights. I worried that he couldn’t sit still, wouldn’t listen, didn’t pay attention. I became convinced he would never finish his college applications on time or be able to sit through the grueling exams required these days. But he completed them all and sailed off to college, happy to be on the move. And he has remained on the move ever since.
That is the same young man who celebrated his 20th birthday in Cambodia. He arrived home five days before Christmas, full of tales from his travels and reflections on expatriate communities, Hemingway and the astonishing kindness of the Khmer people, which I would never have known about if he hadn’t told me and which, given their history, seems like a miracle.