When they were little, not yet school-age, I used to take them to the zoo probably once a week. We’d meet up with other mom friends of mine with their tiny kids and tour the place together. The zoo soothed all of us, with its meandering paths and out-of-the-way places to sit and have a snack before moving on to the next animal habitat. And it tired the kids out, so that by the time we got in the car to go home they were ready to nap.
My boys are 11 and 13 now, long past the age when the zoo was magical. I didn’t care. I wanted a chance to be with them in a simple way again. And even though their enthusiasm was muted, I pressed on.
“We’re going,” I said firmly, and piled them into the car.
It’s a great zoo, just the right size, with lots of animals and a separate area with kiddie rides and picnic tables. I paid for our tickets and we went in, stepping easily into the same route we used to take: First the flamingos, then the muntjac deer and the sun bears, then down the hill to the white-handed gibbons and macaws. As we walked people eddied and churned around us — packs of school kids holding hands, teachers in tow; clusters of moms pushing strollers; grandparents guiding their young charges through the crowd.
A surge of gratitude shot through me. I was with my boys, watching the animals and the people and exclaiming over the toucans (“Mom! Look at them! Wow, they’re so loud when they fly!” my younger son said) and laughing at the warthogs and counting the giraffes and, as usual, avoiding the camels.
We were together, right now, but I kept getting distracted by all the memories of being at the zoo with them when they were young, my older son’s fine baby hair swirling in the breeze as he ran toward the tortoises, my younger boy clambering up onto the merry-go-round’s big gray eagle, both of them beaming down at me from the cockpits of the red and white airplanes as the ride circled them around and around. And this time it wasn’t just the shadows of the past that mixed in with the moment but intimations of the future — their sooner-rather-than-later launch into the world of adults.
If I live to be 80, my child-rearing years will only constitute a quarter of my life, give or take – and what happens when they’re gone? In the parenting culture I inhabit, children aren’t born into an expectation of helping with the family farm and to caring for their parents in old age. I tend to think that I can’t expect ongoing relationship with them when they’re on their own. Once they’re out of the house, they get to decide how close they will want to be.
And if children aren’t for parents’ use, what’s the point of having them? I wondered, as the boys and I gazed over the lip of the hyena enclosure. (Besides the continuation of the species, of course.)
When I get into this train of thought I come back to the idea of parenting as an opportunity for spiritual growth – a chance to learn to be of service, to live with integrity. To love to the bone. It’s the only “reason” for parenting I can think of that doesn’t make me dependent on my children in a way that could be burdensome. Seeing my relationship with them as a learning lab releases all of us to move forward through life’s phases more freely. But don’t get me wrong — it doesn’t feel comfortable. To be honest, I’m scared of the pain I’ll experience if my longing for continued closeness with my boys isn’t reciprocated.
My older son tugged on my arm. We boarded the roller coaster, each in our own car. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the more dramatic task of letting go of adult children was not happening now. Come back to the moment, I reminded myself. Set your anxiety about the future down and really look at your boys. Watch them laugh as we sweep around a particularly sharp turn. Look, we’re here right now, together.