Cambridge University defines refuge as “(a place that gives) protection or shelter from danger, trouble, unhappiness, etc.” Motherhood increased my capacity to love tenfold. It has given me the most joyous moments of my life, along with the most challenging. The dichotomy of being a mom is like staring at the sun; it fills your soul with a warm yellow glow, but will cause headaches and blindness. Next week my oldest turns 12 and I will have been a mom for 4,383 days. Up until now I have been the one to provide both my boys with refuge, but as they prepare to leave the nest, they don’t always want it. When they were little they would run into my arms and cry the instant they got hurt, and now they brag about “taking it like a man.” This year I brought them to our small carnival, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to try to hang around them. The older they get, the more like cats they become. They want my comfort, love and attention, but only on their terms. One of our yearly traditions is to take our bikes to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and I take a picture of them at the same spot each year. James was a few days shy of 3 the first time we went down there, and although we missed a couple of years, it’s been a pretty consistent summer trip.
“Big things have small beginnings.” -Prometheus
Wednesday morning I woke up to a rainstorm and was bummed out because I had planned our Blackwater trip for that day. After a few hours, the sun started to come out and I stubbornly decided we would make it work. I figured the forecast for possible thunderstorms later was precautionary, so we threw our bikes on the car and headed south towards Cambridge, MD. I vividly remember our first car ride there. It was in my old car. Charlie was in a bucket car seat, both of their seats faced backwards and they were screaming for goldfish most of the ride. I had almost forgotten how hard it is to pass children stuff when their seats face in the opposite direction. I used a trailer for towing them behind my bike, and James had a little balance bike too. I had a plethora of water bottles, snacks, diapers, wipes, organic bug spray and a CD of annoying kids music the boys adored. Neither of them had diabetes back then. My biggest worry was getting back to the car by naptime so that I didn’t have screaming maniacs for the rest of the day. What felt like a really big deal then, seems so small and insignificant now. This time around they had their phones, airpods, GoPros and we each grabbed our own snacks and low food. My biggest worry was that they wouldn’t have any fun at all. The wonder of seeing bald eagles, counting turtles and riding “faster than a car” is all gone. I know they would have rather spent the day at the pool with their friends, but I also know how valuable our quality time together is.
The sky was once again covered in clouds when we pulled into the parking lot off of the scenic drive and unloaded our bikes. We wore bathing suits because I planned on renting kayaks or canoes after our bike ride, something they were looking forward to. A landscaping crew laughed as I pulled their bikes off the rack, struggling with James’s bike which is now heavier than mine. Charlie refused to put on a helmet and told me he would just sit in the car and wait for James and I to return. When I was a young mom, every age seemed to have its thing – terrible twos, threenagers, fournado and moms of older kids assured me that the eye of the storm is from about 5-9 and then buckle up again. I remember the two of them in the bike trailer fighting over sides, and snacks and eventually being lulled to sleep so that their heads were resting against one anothers. For both of my kids, 10 has been a tough age. There seems to be a lot of oppositional defiance that comes with double digits. Who’s down with ODD, every last tweenie! Eventually Charlie put his helmet on “because I forced him to,” which means I stood my ground until he caved, not that I pinned him down until I could get the damn thing on his head, and we started our ride.
Our first stop was off to the left, not far from the parking lot, to an observation deck. Nine years ago, after we looked through the binoculars at the birds and Ospreys, James grabbed Charlie’s hand as he wobbled down the incline back to the bikes. I snapped a picture of it, and since then, our tradition is to recreate that picture (a few others here and there, but that one is a staple). This time around, the two of them were not looking through the binoculars, but spinning them around. James was bragging about being a good listener and not arguing about having to wear a helmet, while Charlie was yelling at his brother saying things like “Bro, you don’t even know me,” which made no sense in context. He was arguing to argue, angry and mean because he knows we love him unconditionally. James did the same thing at that age. I leaned against the railing a bit further back than them and observed them go back and forth. For years it was the kids and I, especially in the summer. We were always together. We adventured, explored, discovered and for years I have played referee, judge, mediator and negotiator. I tried to stay out of it and let them work it out themselves, until two innocent birders came up and I had to shut them up so that maybe the birds would return after echos of emotionally charged tween insults finished reverberating off the marsh reeds. After the world’s most over-the-top eye rolls, the boys held hands and walked down the ramp so that I could snap a picture. And as it has happened since James turned 10, I made a mental note to maybe just call it quits on this tradition. This is the last year I’m doing this shit.
“One surprise of motherhood for me was how little control I have. I thought it would be an extended, blissful romance with me at the helm, cuddling this little creature to life. It’s been bittersweet and humbling to let her lead, and to try not to be perfect myself.” – Amanda Peet
We got back on the scenic drive and meandered our way through a forested section with a marsh on the left, and a small stream on the right. We didn’t see any turtles out on the logs, but the sun wasn’t out. A Pileated Woodpecker flew over the road, and in a split second of youth, Charlie pumped his legs as hard as he could and took off down the straight-way just like when he pretended he was faster than a car. This summer I am boxing up their Legos, and giving away their Matchbox cars. I dread what replaces those things. Watching the child-like play come out is a relief. James stayed back with me and we continued on the road as it turned left and surrounded us on both sides by water. The moment we turned the bend, the sun came out. We saw turtles, Great Blue Herons, Osprey and smaller birds. James talked about his upcoming trip to the beach and birthday. This will be the first year, ever, that I won’t be with one of my kids on their birthday. Prior to divorce, I knew it eventually would happen. My friend Tracy said her ex admitted to her that their divorce forced him to become a more-involved dad. The same happened in my world. Nine years ago their nap schedule was a really big fucking deal, and I didn’t know why their dad didn’t seem to get that. I devoted years of my life to being a small human event coordinator. It’s hard not to hold onto resentment that it was just the three of us for so long. It’s hard that some other woman is now taking a small part in raising my kids. During these moments I have to swallow hard and try not to see any of it as something I am losing, but rather this is what my kids are gaining.
“The difficult relationships in my life are the perfect mirror for me to look more closely at my own behavior.” -Gabrielle Bernstein
Just two days earlier Charlie was livid with me inside a Target when I explained that if he didn’t find his retainer (we are on #3) that day, he would have to pay for a replacement because he had gone too long without wearing it. As I closed the trunk of my car in the parking lot he said, “I just want to go home.” I had kept my calm inside the Target, outside the Target and at that moment when I replied that we were done with our errands, and heading back to the house. He folded his arms across his chest and said, “No, I said I want to go home.” I did not keep my calm then. I didn’t yell, or raise my voice at all, but my heart shattered into a million pieces. “We are going back to my house. You’re with your dad again on Friday,” was my response in my iciest of tones. I am genuinely proud of who the boys are as people, and I know they need to learn and prepare to go off on their own, but fuck if this isn’t painful. Each time I think about Charlie’s words home echoing in my brain, I tell the universe that I am thankful he has a good relationship with his dad, but only after a bit of resentment lets out.
Towards the end of the 3.6 mile road, we spotted two bald eagles. It also began to drizzle, and we heard thunder in the distance. I decided to turn around at this point, instead of making a loop, and getting back to the car as quickly as possible. I lost my cool at one point during the ride back when Charlie veered and nearly took out myself and James. Parenting tweens is a different game. Their brains are literally being rewired, their hormones are starting to surge and where I was once the center of their universe, they now have close friends. I know they don’t wear helmets at their dads house, and from a place of fear I reprimanded them for not being able to keep their bikes straight when they are looking around. Charlie got upset with me, saying that I always yell at him. At that moment he genuinely felt like I loved his brother more. I explained that I worry about them falling without helmets. I was honest and told him that I love them both equally, but there are moments where I get along with one of them more easily than the other. The real truth is that these moments vary in length from minutes to months.
The afternoon thunderstorm meant we didn’t get a chance to kayak, so I took them to the carnival after the storm cleared, and stayed away as requested. I helped a friend wrangle her two small children and watched as they tried to cut in line, cried when they were too small for certain rides and tried to wander off. I also observed with some jealousy how they used her like a human tissue, literally slobbering on her, held her hand tight and came straight to her after each ride to tell her all about how awesome it was. An older woman came up to me after I was used as a human ATM and told me that I have good boys. She recounted how James and Charlie saw a little kid drop one of his inflatable bats from a distance, ran to grab it, and gave it back to the little boy. They have a strong moral compass and empathy for others … but refuse to wear helmets while riding bikes like I have a huge life insurance policy that they are the beneficiaries of.
Pretty soon they’ll both be full-blown teens and these moments I’m in now will seem small and those future worries will be monstrous. That night the kids told me that they had fun, and they hate holding hands but they do it because they love me. So I think I will keep our tradition, no matter how much they bitch about holding hands. Bald eagles live and nest at the refuge, and I love knowing I will always see them there. “Bald eagles can catch fish with one hand while flying through the air. They also possess enough strength to carry objects that weigh at least as much as they do. Such feats of strength require an incredible amount of balance and poise. In a spiritual sense, bald eagles symbolize equilibrium and stability. Sighting a bald eagle represents a chance for you to self-reflect and figure out ways to bring stability back to your life.” Source Like the bald eagle, mothers must possess enough strength to carry copious amounts of love, and emotional baggage that far outweighs them. The bald eagles are a reminder to parent with poise. I will stand firm without being inflexible. I will pick the battles worth fighting, and let the minor stuff go. With the temper tantrums comes the snotty snuggles. With the bad attitudes comes the formation of personality. I have an inkling of what’s to come, but I also know with the myriad of teenage bullshit comes the moral compass life insurance – what I have invested in them will pay off in the future.