The Twilight of Childhood

In bittersweet reflection, a mother bids her kids' childhood adieu

On Mother’s Day, I sat in the passenger seat as my family drove past Woodland Park. I looked out the window at the same old scenery, when my eyes betrayed me. The Seattle park suddenly had all new playground equipment. I gasped loudly, because I knew this change wasn’t sudden. My husband and my 12- and 9-year-old daughters answered “What?”

“They redid the playground and I had no idea!” I said.

I couldn’t believe it, and yet I could. We are no longer playground-dwellers; our lives are not about which park we will visit next. Still, it was Mother’s Day and all activities were pre-ordained by me. We marched up the hill after dinner. It felt weird that we had two dogs to bring with us now. I had willingly adopted not one but two dogs while being a parent to not one but two children.

But at the park, we spread out into a new formation, because I don’t have two children anymore, at least not in the same way as I did. I have a tween and a girl who is not kidlike. We all played with the dogs in the field as I gazed distractedly at the new equipment with complete disbelief. The park was not the same, and I kept sighing over the differences.

The big pretend boulder that I first lifted my kids up on, and that they eventually learned how to scale, had been moved. The swings still had extra-long chains, but they are probably safer now in some way and not quite as fun. Sadly, there was still no bathroom. And the structure both of my girls had practiced swinging from bar-to-bar on was replaced by a large rope-climbing orb.

At last my youngest went to climb on the orb. I soon followed, pushing my almost 44-year-old limbs from rung to rung. One thing was the same: I made casual conversation with another mom.

“I can’t believe the equipment is all new,” I said to the other mom. “The slide that was here is gone.”

“I know, but there are two slides over there, and the swings still go high,” she replied.

I couldn’t get over this restructuring, this leap into newness while I wasn’t looking.

The casual mom park talk felt familiar. But I couldn’t get over this restructuring of my family and my mother life, this leap into newness while I wasn’t looking.

I leaned against the ropes and remembered the day a boy pushed my oldest down the now-disappeared slide. In my mind, I saw her play with gravity, almost going over the edge before her body corrected itself and fell too fast and then recovered and slid down the slide.

That day, my heart stopped and I felt rage for the boy who put my child in danger’s way. I couldn’t breathe, and then I could and I wanted to pummel that child for seconds that slowed down until my friend placed her hand on my shoulder and I breathed a bit deeper. My friend said she’d find the boy’s mom, and I held my daughter close to me. I remember thinking that day that I couldn’t protect her, this girl of mine, that nowhere was really safe, not even the park we came to all the time.

Now that slide was gone, and I sat basking in the sun, completely rearranged again with an idea finally solidified for real: My girls and I had left childhood way behind within the last year or so.

My oldest joined us on the climbing orb, set on reaching the pinnacle, and I now had no worry about her falling on equipment designed with younger kids in mind. Her orbs continue to move farther away from me, and I look with such astonishment at the people behind me on the parenting ladder.

About six weeks ago I saw a man holding a doll during school pick-up. Why is he holding a baby doll? I wondered. Then I focused my eyes on him as he walked toward me, and I saw he was holding a newborn. And I laughed at the idea of how foreign it seems to me to hold a real baby that my mind placed a pretend baby in his arms instead.

These days I have new kinds of babies: My daughters laugh at the way I talk 'parentese' to our dogs. Only these non-humans fit in the crooks of my elbows now.

Years ago I couldn’t breathe when my child was pushed down the slide. Playground politics were new to me then. I thought about my friend finding the other parent for me when my girl got pushed. I had held myself in check then, not approaching the boy who sent my daughter down the slide without her permission even though I wanted to.

Now I send my 12-year-old to camp and instruct her on how to take care of herself. We tuck a piece of paper that lists her good qualities into a book, knowing she can use the list when she fills lonely or lacks confidence. I have taught both girls mantras, and they tell me their mantra is, “I am awesome.” I tell them to tuck these words around them as they step into the world outside of my protective vision.

On Mother’s Day, I sat on a rope orb and watched my girls climb without me as my husband played with our dogs in the green grass. I watched the parents with younger kids and knew that I had left this world behind. I watched older kids, too, wondering if they are in college or high school. They are the ones I really keep my eyes on now, these kids flirting as they climb nearby, my thoughts speculating about the years ahead.


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