What Does ‘Mom’ Mean Now That They’re Grown?

by Kate Marshall

Photo credit: Oliver Rossi, The Image Bank/ Getty Images

“I was a good mother.”

“You still are,” said my husband, David, knowing the new empty nest was hitting me hard.

“I taught them everything they needed to leave home. Now they’re gone, and they don’t need me at all,” I sighed.

“Wait, is that good or bad?” When I could only sigh again in reply, he understood my momentary crisis was an existential one, and let me be to ruminate with a cup of Oolong.

I asked my steaming golden tea, “If I’m not a mom, then who am I?”

When the kids were young, I knew not only where they were at all times, but what they were wearing and when their last shower was. I knew their friends’ birthdays, their teachers’ dogs’ names, their coaches’ favorite swear words. I was useful, sometimes even to teens. They’d ask, “Mom, does ketchup come out of khakis?” Or they’d say, “Mom, band concert is Friday,” which translated to “Please come.” Now a week, often two weeks, can go by without me talking to either child.

It took some time to grieve the old me, the me fulfilled by active mothering. She had to go in order to free the kids to be competent, healthy adults. And they are. I gradually accepted that yes, I am still Mom, but my job description had changed. Some aspects just naturally shifted, but some took mindfulness, and continue to. When does active loving cross over to being suffocating? Supportive to enabling? Respectful to distant? Honest to judgmental? I don’t always get it right.

Long ago, I quit as Maid to my kids and they fired me as Manager. I’ve tried to stop being Nag, also known as The Enforcer (but I sometimes relapse). So what’s left? Plenty. Here’s my personal, work-in-progress list of what it means to be Mom to grown-up kids:

Keeper of Memories
Nobody else has known my children longer. I was there for nearly everything from ages 0 to 18. And I’ve got the photo albums and VHS tapes to prove it.

I’d like to quit this role, but that’s unlikely — I’m genetically predisposed to it. I do trust my kids’ coping skills, but I’m still going to worry when they face challenges. The difference now is that I no longer feel responsible for their every move. David and I gave them darned good wings, and they can use them to fly where they wish. There’s liberation for all involved here.

I do still pray for their well-being, but not as closely for the details. I don’t worry about their daily work challenges the way I paced the floor at home during their calculus finals. But still, some habits are hard to shake. I’m mindful that if not kept in check, worrying can wake up the dreaded Nag, and nobody wants that.

Moms are hardwired to brag. That doesn’t go away. In fact, not feeling responsible for our children frees up extra space for more bragging. And when no longer managing their every move, bragging about them no longer carries an underlying conceit of bragging about ourselves, so we moms can do it even more.

When my son finished a one-year engineering grad program and got an awesome job, I couldn’t wait to bump into people who might ask, “Hey, what’s Ben up to?” so I could say in a cool it-ain’t-no-thing voice, ”Oh, he’s down in L.A. with JPL working on the Cassini satellite and some other stuff I don’t understand.” Like an addict wanting more, I started adding “NASA’s JPL.” And see how I threw in that he did a master’s in one year, implying that he’s super smart? And what did I do immediately after my daughter graduated from law school, with honors? Proudly post it on Facebook, of course. Yes, and write it here.

In the earliest years, I was their teacher and manager. In the teen years, I transitioned to coach. Emily, my eldest, was particularly insistent on firing me when she went to college.

“Thanks Mom, but please stop looking in the course catalog. I got this. And if I make a mistake, I’ll learn from it.” It stung, but of course she was right. Eventually, she rehired me as an occasional consultant, but on her terms.

In the age of Google, it doesn’t seem as important to be a reservoir of factual knowledge as it does to be a good listener, and to occasionally share pertinent personal experiences or my wise old-person perspective. For a safe place to confide doubts or hurts, I’m rightfully second choice to their significant others now, but they know I’m available and honored when they do choose to share with me.

Role Model
When the kids lived with us, dinner was conversation time. We never ate in front of the television, except maybe for presidential debates and playoff football. Now David and I do so often that just hearing the “NewsHour” theme song makes me hungry. At first I asked David, “Are our minds going to rot, like we told the kids theirs would if we do this?” What slippery slope had we embarked on?

I decided I didn’t care. We’ve allowed ourselves a few freedoms, but we do still work on the major areas to model: How do we treat each other, our elderly neighbor, the housepainter, and strangers? Have we chosen socially responsible work? Do we eat healthily, exercise, vote, volunteer, recycle?

I’m not a grandparent yet, but I hear it’s amazing. I can pretend Ben moved back to the Bay Area recently to be closer to us, but really it was for a special girl. I immediately imagined babysitting grandbabies in lovely, bite-sized playdates. Jumping the gun? Of course, but for a few hours this weekend, I’m going to dog-sit his girlfriend’s parents’ dog that they’re responsible for this week. That’s close to a grandparent gig, right?

Emergency Crew
With one child living close now, there will be ways to be useful, the way any family members would be for each other, whether it’s related to lost house keys or something more serious.

Last month, one of my biggest worries happened. After answering the phone, David whispered to me, “Ben’s had a bike crash.” I insistently reached for the phone, instantly in Mom mode. His girlfriend was out of town, so I collected him and his cracked racing bike. He was essentially okay, but needed medical attention. This was familiar mom territory and an honor to navigate with him. We’d been to Urgent Care before together; the difference this time was that he took out his own insurance card and when the forms asked for “responsible party,” he wrote himself. I was simply there for moral support.

Let’s linger on this one, because it’s important and can take mindfulness — the adoring comes easily, but communicating it can take asking ourselves, and perhaps our children: Have I been communicating love? Appreciation? Genuine admiration? Have I given encouragement the way I did so easily from the soccer sidelines?

In some ways it becomes harder, not easier, to make adult children feel our love. Young kids get bedtime kisses, sick day hugs and soups, embarrassingly loud cheers at school plays, heart stickers on lunch bags, and clean soccer socks every week. But other than toasts on special occasions and quick “I love you’s” on the phone, how do we show love and support to an adult child, especially over long distances: gifts, visits, or words of affirmation? It takes thought.

Like other roles — daughter, sister, friend — being Mom changes over the years. In my case, it involves far less of my time now than it did when the kids were young, but every bit as much of my heart.