Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Way of a Mom with Her Graduating Senior

Remember that poetic passage in Proverbs about seemingly commonplace events that are actually marvels beyond comprehension? They include: “the way of an eagle in the sky, a snake on a rock, a ship on the sea, and the way of man with a maiden.”

Well, I’ve got my own list of bafflers, and I’m adding one more: the way of a mother planning her child’s graduation open house. What causes a level-headed, flexible mom to morph into a meticulous civil engineer, fussy interior decorator and sentimental geyser combo?

You've got to see (or be) a mom in this mode to believe it. She can be all business, making a list of home repair projects to take care of before open house and then become an emotional mess in the blink of an eye. It's worse than menopause.

“I can’t believe my baby is all grown up!” becomes the tag line in any conversation concerning that child. It doesn't matter who she's talking to, it could be the manager of the dental office who called to remind her of the child's appointment, and before she hangs up, she will somehow work in the refrain, as in, "Yes, he'll have to switch from the pediatric dentist to our dentist because he's graduating this month, you know. I just can't believe he's all grown up!"

Definitely, a mom of a high school senior in the month of May is a force to be reckoned with—or better yet, to be avoided completely.

My friends and I have special code words for this momentous time in a mom’s life, like, “sacred notebook” for the organizer the mom keeps with her at all times so that she can check off tasks and add new inspirations that will require even more energy and money. The mom will keep it on her nightstand in case of emergency, like having a nightmare in which there was no ice at her open house, a horrendous party faux pas. That way, she can scribble down this God-inspired warning which will save her much embarrassment. Last year one of my friend’s sacred notebooks went missing for about a week. She had to be sedated until it was found.

Another term is “shrine,” as in, “I was working on the shrine the other day, and I realized I don’t have a picture of Ashley with Brittany and Tiffany together; I only have one of her with each girl separately.” The shrine is the visual presentation of the graduate's biography, to which all open house attendees will make a pilgrimage in order to honor the shining child. Shrines can consist of tables with photo albums and scholastic awards, but most have evolved into displays of labor-intensive scrapbooks, dance costumes, DVD loops, life-sized posters, family and friend testimonials, celebrity endorsements and papal blessings.

Only in America. And I’ve been told, only in Indiana. Anyway, somehow we’ve moved from “Children should be seen and not heard,” to “We’ve got to have a clip of Jake’s great tackle on the DVD, and a recording of his band playing outside the house as guests arrive. And by the way, could we get the drive widened and re-plant our annuals to match the school’s colors before Sunday?”

I could easily steer this column from a playful poke at momdom toward a biting, cynical commentary. I could chastise moms for orchestrating these over-the-top productions. I could zero in on the soft spot, asking, “Is there a ‘Best Mom’ competition based on who builds the biggest shrine? Is it a measure of love? Are these indulgent parties indicative of our society’s worship of our children, worship of accomplishment/success, and even worship of celebrity?”

I could, but I won’t. Although all of those unattractive motives may be part of the phenomenon, I think there is an underlying, unstated reason behind the frenzy that deserves more compassion.

At the heart of this circus is a mother’s process of letting go, saying goodbye, to her child. Many moms begin grieving at the beginning of the senior year, and the last month is highly emotional. In spite of a different kind of parenting that lies ahead, moms start to feel that there’s nothing productive left to do, and so they create something to do for that child. It’s like staging one last hurrah to say, “I love you. I’m proud of you—and does this make up for not doing the fundraiser in elementary school, the track meet I missed in junior high and the time I called you ‘honey’ in front of your coach?”

It’s all about that deep, unconditional, heart-tourniquet kind of love that looks a little desperate during this transition. What a paradox—a mom’s goal is to guide her dependent child to independence, and yet there is an inescapable desire to hold on to him. It’s baffling—beyond comprehension—the bittersweet way of a mother with her child who’s on the threshold of independence.

1 comment:

Gregg Podolski said...


I just wanted to congratulate you for being the first person to ever post their picture in a comment on my blog. (Actually, some of my friends have tried before, but they all suffer from a severe medical condition known as "ugly," so I had to delete the photos).

Thanks for the kind words regarding my bear column. You're a very talented writer and I have no doubt that "little column" in your city paper will soon turn into that "little book" on the bestseller lists. With your permission, I'd like to link to your site from mine, however if you'd rather not be affiliated with a guy from Jersey, that's okay. I'm used to it.