Maternal Obsolescence


diving boardHe can go off the diving board now. This is a big deal. You have to show the lifeguards that you can swim all the way from wall to wall in the deep end and that you can tread water. Then you have to be able to walk past where the railing of the board ends, with that funny fluttery feeling in your stomach, and summon the courage to step and bounce and leap, up, up and out into thin air for a glorious second before SPLASH! Into the water and up to the surface and over to the ladder to climb out and start again. And you don’t get to have a grown up there to help. This is something big kids do and they do it on their own.

He can go off the diving board and I can’t hep him because there’s no help he needs. This is something the big kids do and, somehow, yes, he is a big kid. He doesn’t look out of place in the line for the diving board. He fits in with the dripping line of kids waiting their turn, craning their necks to see how many people are ahead of them then watching each stroke as the person in the water clears the way for the next diver. There is no place in the line for a parent. At best, I belong near the ladder, on the other side of the rope that marks the diving well, looking and cheering as he surfaces, thrilled and ready to go again.

These milestones pop up every so often. These moments in motherhood where you reach out to help your child only to realize they’ve done it themselves and you think “He doesn’t need me anymore.”. I call it maternal obsolescence: the phenomenon of mothering a child to the point where they don’t need mothering anymore. This summer, I have become obsolete in a new way.

Maternal obsolescence is a good thing. It means you’ve done your job of escorting a child to that mile marker on life’s road. They got there safely, learning what they needed to learn along the way. Now they can walk that path on their own. It’s little things at first, using a spoon or taking off their own shoes. As they grow they can climb the playground slide alone or buckle their car seat straps. They get dressed without you or take a solo bath. Drop-off playdates instead of the kind where you stay. Learning to read. To go off a diving board. You have to let them do each thing alone and celebrate it because this is your job. To teach them to do it themselves. To render yourself obsolete.

The good mother will find herself consigned more and more to the sidelines as her child grows up. Her role goes from caretaker to coach to spectator.  She’ll never lose the impulse to put her hand in, to straighten a shirt tail or cut up a hot dog or catch a child who’s leapt off the diving board. But the good mother knows to pull her hand back and let her child have their moment of success. She has to let him have that breathtaking thrill of soaring through the air all alone before splashing into the pool and swimming strongly to the edge. All a good mother can do is be proud. Wistful, maybe, but mostly proud.

Photo credit: photo stock

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