A brief field trip to my life after child-rearing

When my kids get back from their four-day school trip to Williamsburg, Va., I will ask them what they did, though I already know what they will answer: Nothing. No, really Mom. It was sooooooo boring. And it rained. This is just what 12-year-olds say when you inquire about their activities. It's not to be taken seriously.

Eventually they'll tell me most of what they did, and in the retelling they'll realize they had a pretty good time. They may have even learned something. But for now, my son will probably say the best part of the trip was watching "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" on the bus. My daughter has already called to complain about the hotel. She misses me, she misses her bed. Her shoes are wet. And she bought me a sock monkey. I'm not sure her social studies teacher will be pleased with her priorities.

When my kids get back tomorrow, they will ask me what I did with all my free time. The time I usually spend driving them around or making them dinner or nagging them about their homework. They will assume I'll meet them at their bus with a finished novel and an exchange student from Finland, and that I'll be 10 pounds thinner. They have high expectations. They are also impatient. They like to see quick results. After all they've been away since Tuesday. Surely I've accomplished something.

The truth is, I haven't done much at all these last three days. I haven't gone into the city to see a play or an exhibit. I haven't written much. I haven't reorganized the closets. Nor have I taken up race-car driving or gambling or started playing bridge. What I have done is some thinking, about what life will be like six years from now.

Six years from now my kids will be in college, I hope. And since they are twins and it's unlikely one will be held back or skip a grade, it's safe to assume they'll be leaving the nest simultaneously.

When I think back to the first six years of their lives, it seems like a slow march through molasses just getting them to first grade. The second six years, however, have been more like a quick step danced to an increasingly faster tempo. I fear the next six years will blur right past and then - all at once - they'll be gone. Not gone for good, but gone in a way they've never been gone before. Gone as in "going on with their lives." It's the goal of having kids: If you succeed, they grow up and go away.

Perhaps I'm suffering from fear of success. I'm used to having my children structure my day, my thoughts, my breathing. Little by little, they aren't that structure any more. What I'm left with is me.

I remember me: I used to spend a lot of time with me, before I was married. And even after marriage I had a daytime gig living a solo life. But motherhood changed that in ways I never could have imagined. My thoughts are no longer my own. They belong to two other people who you could say are renting space in my head. You could also call them squatters: They came in and took over. When they don't live here anymore I don't think they'll be as demanding. (But I wouldn't put it past them to FedEx their laundry home.) And so it seems prudent to plan for the six years that will follow the next six. I'll read, I'll write, maybe I'll travel ... into the city for lunch with my husband. I'll have a grand old time I'm sure. I'll find my bearings eventually without them. I'll have to, so I will.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men and me can be quite cheesy. So I'm not trying to plan as much as I'm trying to unlock the grip my children have on my heart. So that maybe it can beat on its own when the time comes for them to go.

And yet I also know that when my kids come back tomorrow from their four-day school trip, the only thing I'll want to hear is not what they did or what they saw or what they learned. The only thing I'll want to hear is their hearts beating close to mine when I hold them in my arms.

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