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Still a Mom--No Matter Where Kids Are

June 25, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Nobody had to tell me that Monday was the longest day of the year. For me, it seemed like an eternity.

The summer solstice marks the beginning of summer, but in my case it also signals the end of another season of parenthood. For most mothers, the empty-nest syndrome occurs once in a lifetime--once for each child, anyway. But my two little birds fly away every year to spend the summer with their father in Ohio, leaving the part of me that answers to "Mom" wandering around at loose ends.

No matter how much I anticipate it--and by May, believe me, I'm counting the days--the transition is always abrupt.

I spent Sunday the way I usually do, simultaneously answering questions ("No, you can't use your umbrella for a satellite dish. Not even if you line it with aluminum foil"), aborting arguments ("If you can't do it together without fighting, you'll have to take turns"), fixing meals, tripping over skateboards and shoveling clothes into the washer like a fireman loading coal on a steam locomotive. Please, let me make it through one more day of this, I begged silently.

The next evening, after handing my offspring over to a flight attendant who seemed all too nonchalant about the fact that these were children traveling--and changing planes-- alone , I hurried home only to find myself sitting in the middle of the house, listening to the refrigerator hum. The stereo I had complained about night after night was silent, and the dirty socks had disappeared from the floor. The house that seemed uncomfortably small months before when I couldn't find refuge from a two-hour "Jetsons" TV special had been transformed into a vast estate.

For 10 months, I never seemed to have enough time to do it all. Now, suddenly, I had too much time, and I didn't feel like doing anything.

Nine years ago, their father and I decided to follow our own parental advice: If we couldn't do it together without fighting, we'd have to take turns. Like children, we wanted those turns to be even-steven, but we soon realized ours weren't the only demands on our children's time. They had school, they had friends, they had other relatives. So, like adults, we did in divorce what we were unable to do in marriage: we compromised.

By nature, compromises are less than ideal, and this one is no exception. For the children, life with parents who live 2,500 miles apart means that wherever they are, they're always missing someone. For their father, it means hearing about band concerts and Halloween costumes over scratchy long-distance lines, never seeing them. When there are tears after a disastrous day at school, he can't wipe them.

And for me, solo parenting means never being able to say, "Go ask your father." If I discover at 10 p.m. that we have only a tablespoon of milk left, I can't send anyone else to the store for another jug. It also means smiling--mouth shut--when I hear about how dad feeds them Pepsi and doughnuts for breakfast when he runs out of milk.

The one fringe benefit is that if I can somehow make it from September to June, I get some time off. But after being "on" so intensely, it's always difficult to make the switch. It takes about a week each year to realize that I can stop buying Oreos and hot dogs at the supermarket and that I don't have any reason to hurry home at night.

By the Fourth of July, the silence in the house no longer makes me nervous. And by the beginning of August, I'm settling into my new routine, only to glance at the calendar and panic when I realize the peace and quiet will only last a few more weeks.

On Monday, however, I wasn't ready to think about any of that. Until I knew the children had been safely delivered to their dad, I was still an active mother, however passive I felt.

I looked at the clock; where were they by now? Dallas? No, they were scheduled to land there two hours ago. So they should be on the way to Cincinnati. Or Philadelphia, if they didn't make the switch. Oh, well, I've got a friend there. I should have given them the number, just in case.

As part of my annual ritual, I got up and closed the doors to their bedrooms. For some reason, it's easier if I don't go in there, especially at first. I'm supposed to, though; the Cabbage Patch Kids stayed home this year, and I've been deputized by my 10-year-old daughter to give them their mandatory daily hugs.

I took Weird Al out of the stereo and replaced him with Bobby McFerrin, the tape my 12-year-old son can't stand. I made pizza-for-one and ate it in the living room--against the rules, but who was going to complain?

In the bathroom, I took a quick look around. My daughter forgot her toothbrush. Should I send it? No, she'll have another by the time it gets there. I put the Band-Aids away and the lid back on the shampoo. I soaked decadently in the tub, and for once, nobody knocked on the door and asked me to please hurry.

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