As a pediatrician, I got the chance to preview parenthood in more detail than many people likely do. The five-year-old little boy who clutched his mom during bedside rounds my intern year stands out even now: he buried his head in her chest as soon as we entered the room. She whispered, "Does something hurt or are you scared?" He managed to whisper that it was the latter and she held him tight, soothing and reassuring him while she listened to the plan for the day.
I carried that rosy picture along with many others as a boon of future parenthood. The chance to cuddle, to protect, to take complete care of my own little person someday - and, yes, in all honesty, the chance to be so important, to be the one. The one a child immediately turns to, relies on, needs.
Since that encounter, I have had two sons, and it thrills me to know end to be, along with my husband, their person. Nothing compares to the sound of little boy feet running toward the door with the greeting of a wide smile, a "Mama!," and eventually, "Mommy's home!" To the high-pitched voice calling your name in the middle of the night because of a scary dream or a need for water or just some extra cuddles. When in shyness they hide behind me, hugging my legs, my heart bursts with joy and wonder at the chance to be part of this classic, perhaps cliched but no less endearing, image of a child clutching his mother for comfort.
A few months ago, I saw a teenage boy in my office for consultation. I'm training in pediatric hematology/oncology, so trips to my clinic can be nerve-wracking for patients and families. This young man's sheer terror at what he feared were symptoms of cancer (happily, they were not) was visible, audible, nearly palpable. When I sent him to have blood drawn and imaging done, I heard him say to his mother, who had accompanied him, "I need to call [insert girl's name here]."
His reaction startled me. I could appreciate the anxiety, but the realization that, even with his mother beside him, his instinct was to turn to someone different - presumably his girlfriend - took me by surprise. Once I reminded myself that it was, in fact, developmentally appropriate for an adolescent to be developing relationships and establishing independence from his family, I was left with sadness. Someday, far sooner than I hope, my boys will turn to someone else as their person. Someone other than me will be the one.
I sit with that sadness even now. With each milestone, it mixes in with the joy and pride. And as my children grow and I grow, my work continues to provide examples of the realities and possibilities of parenthood. So when I encountered another adolescent who, facing a challenge, had little support and no peers, romantic or platonic, to whom to turn, my apprehension and sorrow began to abate. I want my children to grow and develop, to have healthy relationships and support, even if they must eventually come from someone other than me.
For the time being, though, I'm fortunate to have my days peppered with eager footsteps, warm hugs, and sticky kisses. And when I dropped my older son off at school yesterday, after we had said our goodbyes, he ran back for one more hug. I savor every single one.