The Other Side of the Mountain
There’s an old children’s song my mom used to sing in the car on the way to my grandparents' house, nestled in a Canadian river valley where the worn nubs of ancient mountains undulate one after the other for as far as the eye can see. Maybe you’ve heard it before.
“The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see, to see what he could see, to see what he could see.
“The other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, was all that he could see.”
I’ve been humming it lately, as I reach for a way to describe what it’s like to stand on the next threshold of my life, taking in the wholly new territory of parenting an adult person. Mama Bear has come to the other side of the mountain. It’s been just over a year since we tearfully and triumphantly dropped our firstborn off at college. My husband and I high-fived in the campus parking lot. We had not only managed to bring this amazing creature into the world, we had apparently managed to not screw it up so—we were the proud parents of an high school honors graduate with a generous scholarship to an excellent private school and a loving family to cheer him on. “I’m too happy for you to be sad for me,” I told him as we hugged goodbye.
All I’ve ever wanted for him is everything. But it turns out everything he wants and needs from life are not necessarily the same things I had in mind. Two months into his second semester, he came home and told us that college was not the right thing for him, right now. I can’t say we were blindsided. We knew he was struggling with finding his purpose there, and that downsizing from a diverse, bustling urban high school to a tiny rural campus had been a culture shock. “Give it a year,” I urged him. By Valentine’s Day, I was making peace with the probability that we were looking at a transfer to another school in the fall. “Come home for a visit and we’ll make a new plan,” I said. But he had already made a plan. Without me.
It’s hard to explain the depth of grief I felt in those first few weeks after his announcement. It hardly made sense. He moved in with friends a mere 15 minutes across town and immediately began looking for work. But as much I had missed him when he was living on campus 100 miles away, this was different. All through the first semester, the last thing I saw every night was the little circle on my phone assuring me he was safely in his dorm. Even though I’d officially released him from the obligation to share his location with me (a condition of my teens having smartphones), he hadn’t bothered to turn it off. Looking at that screen was the long distance version of tucking him in each night as I’d done for 19 years. But his circle was finally gone, and with it the illusion that college was just another room in our family house, down a 100-mile hallway. My son had actually left home.
That’s what grown children do, right? It’s not supposed to come as a surprise. I’m not a mother who has lived for or through her kids alone. I’ve taken care to cultivate an existence beyond them. Because I knew this day would come. For two decades of my life, I have been steadily trudging up this mountain. What did I think I would see on the other side? Somehow, I thought the descent would match the incline—my child-rearing years plotted along an equilateral triangle. But it turns out the other side of the mountain has a much steeper slope. The kind you want to schootch down slowly on your backside. I’m still feeling my way along. Meantime, my son is off and running, learning firsthand if his culinary ambitions measure up to the reality of six days a week in a busy restaurant kitchen, figuring out how to make rent and keep the lights on. I’m proud of his hard work and his determination. It’s not the path I thought he should take. But it’s his own mountain he’s climbing now. To see what he can see.
Kyran Pittman is mom to three sons, sweetheart to their dad, and author of numerous stories about life with all four. Her memoir, “Planting Dandelions,” was published by Riverhead in 2011.