Like the bed, this chair is not quite comfortable. I’ve stayed here before. It’s one of the many Santa Cruz motels retro-beach themed. I enjoy the throwback font on the sign and the place is clean enough, but it’s the price that lands me here. Upscale hotel rooms with their fluffy pillows, non-polyester bedspreads and fancy toiletries please me. A guilty pleasure. But I’m aiming for thrifty on this trip. I packed food. I did not order a glass of wine at dinner. My funds need to go toward ensuring K has everything she needs that I can provide before she jets off to Europe for the summer. That’s why I’m here. To spend time with her before thousands of miles separate us and to be Mom.
It’s strange how my mothering role has changed with the girls off in the world and Nick having one foot out the door. After two decades of almost always having a kid or three attached to me, I now move through the days almost wholly myself. People I’ve met in the last few years know I have children, but they’ve never known me as “Mom!” – I’m just Jen. They’ve never heard me bubble over with pride after a Little League game, never heard the panic in my voice when I called to say one kid or another needing rushing to the hospital, have no idea how good I am at making pancakes or that I spent a year as a “nacho mom” when Chelsea was in fourth grade. I appreciate that I never let my identity disappear into motherhood, but to see me without it is incomplete.
“You had Chelsea when you were my age,” K noted recently. She’s 20.
“Yes, and I had you when I was Chelsea’s age.” I rejoined. Chelsea’s 24.
I was pregnant at 19. In my entire life as an adult, I was never not a mother. In the past year, Bobby and I have grown used to being the only people in the house. We cook less. Once a treat so rare we couldn’t even relax into it, now a night home just the two of us is commonplace – Nick crashes at his friends’ places often. The house stays clean, more or less. Especially since we buried our dog last year.
I miss certain things: reading out loud, giggle-filled hikes out to the beach, making pancakes. I do not miss the rebellious teenage years, the endless running late places, the laundry. I’m enjoying feeling myself emerge more wholly these past few years, although rediscovering and redefining oneself is not as simple as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. This era might feel a bit like I’m finally having the twenties I never had – and I confess, I envy certain freedoms younger women have gained, the confidence they have in their right to expect better from men, from careers, from their parents, the ability to be their own ass-kicking selves without apology, but it’s not like I need to suddenly get my party on.
Because I am most definitely not 20-something and I worked in bars through much of that decade anyway, so it’s not as if I missed out on going out. I saw bands. I had (still have) good times. I’ve always been rich in friends. I just had to accept certain types of responsibility faster because I had small people I loved depending on me to take care of them. That fact defined my life. It also defined my marriage, as did the ways in which our families judged us, as did the struggle to bring in enough money, to make a life with so few resources.
We persevered, Bobby and I, recently celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary, 26 years together in all. Not every moment is quiet and peaceful. We still argue about bills sometimes. Or whether or not too much stuff is accumulating. (It is!) But overall, this new chapter has been quite agreeable for us – it’s an odd thing when the kids are no longer the focal point. A couple might discover they have nothing else in common. They might not know each other. They might not like each other – and without the distraction of who’s driving the kids, making dinner, planning the family’s vacations, with nothing to do except hang out, well, sometimes people end up going their separate ways. I’m relieved Bobby still makes me laugh, that I love his cooking and his happiness in his garden. That we look forward to going to bed together.
Oh, but the worry! The children may no longer be children, but I spend no less time squelching the fears of losing them. Since I brought Chelsea out of the hospital, realized how small and vulnerable my new baby was in the light of this huge, terrifying world, a part of my brain has been dedicated to making sure I never, ever forget the grip they have on my heart and all the ways in which they could be wrenched from me. Every news story involving children stokes the potential narratives. I am here in Santa Cruz because K is off to Europe for the summer between semesters. I’m thrilled for her – education and travel being things I did arrive late to – but the distance, thinking of how many miles will lie between her and us hits like something physical.
The children are part of me and now those parts are scattered. It’s impossible to feel whole. But I’ll help K find some boots and keep sending Chelsea texts and cards, and pester Nick with questions like, “Are you alive?” when he hasn’t come home by midnight. I will take K to the airport on Wednesday, hug her hard and wave goodbye as she goes through security.
I will drive away in tears, my heart asunder, make my way back up the 101 to home, where I’ll share the news that, “She’s off!” and people will smile and say, “Wow! That’s so great!” And I’ll agree. It is.