“The only way that we can live is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.” -C. Joybell
I am coming to the end of an era in my life as my youngest daughter celebrates her 15th birthday this week. Mothering my four children has been my primary occupation for the last half of my life and now, as I near the end of this growth cycle, I am coming to see what has yet to grow in me. Somehow as I was having all these babies I never realized how old I would become when the job was done. I remember a few random moments pushing a swing, when I would calculate how old I would be when this last little girl would graduate from high school, but then the idea of this time so far in the future felt like fiction. Imagining my two–year-old at fifteen was as unimaginable to me as my then 37-year-old self turning 52.
There is little growth that we participate in life that compares with the facilitating the remarkable development of a baby into a young adult. Nothing marks time more accurately or vividly than the physiological, emotional and mental development of children. In some weird way, as the parent witness, I never really saw my own development quite as clearly. This may explain why seeing my own reflection still catches me off guard. Especially when I am standing next to my fifteen-year-old daughter looking in the mirror her metamorphosis from child to young woman is less startling than witnessing my own face transforming into the old woman I will become. How has my own growth not been recorded internally, the way it has for my children? In my mind’s eye, I am still that young mother pushing a toddler on a swing.
James Hillman refers to this phenomenon when he talks about how it takes your whole life to grow into the face and to actualize the person you become. On one level, it is easy to lose track of our own growing up while swept up in the process of raising our next generation, and yet, this neglect is not always benign. Sometimes it only shows up in the deepening lines on our faces, but not uncommonly it can also lock us into developmental ruts that impact our ability to keep adapting to the continuous cycles of change within our intimate relationships. This explains the often shadowy breaks that occur between growing teens and parents, or even the outgrowing of lovers that we accept as inevitable. Growing old with someone is no less a work of art than growing a child through their teen years, it’s just that the gifts are more interior. You have to look inside to see them. When it works, they are reflections of sustained youth, shining out of us through our eyes and the way we learn to listen so that others feel heard.
For me, what is most challenging about facing the next stage of growth is partly that it is a continual exercise of letting go. Not only the bittersweet release of my kids as they make their way into their own lives, but also of the way I lean towards acceptance of the new face I see looking back at me. Learning how to live with myself and in partnership without the kids at this stage of life is a letting go of all the ways that life isn’t exactly what I expected. It is learning to embrace reality exactly as it is and respecting our place in the life cycle without longing or regret.