This week I really felt like the parent of a teenager.
My 13 year-old son Aidan received an invitation from his aunt (Philip’s sister) to visit her for a week in New York City. He would fly alone and spend the week seeing the sites with Auntie Anita, her husband, and their baby boy. What an opportunity! He was so excited and intrigued: He could talk of little else from the time we told him about the invitation until the morning he left. He’s an aviation buff, so I wasn’t sure if he was more excited about the plane ride or seeing New York City!
This wasn’t’ the first time he’d traveled alone. When he was 9, he flew as an unaccompanied minor to visit his Great Aunt in northern Minnesota in December. That’s right: a California boy in the heart of Minnesota in the winter. (He was actually born in Boston but doesn’t remember much of his years there.) My aunt and her husband own a home on a lake surrounded by woods: very different from our California suburban existence. We believed and hoped the Minnesota adventure would be a great experience for him. He had a week of sledding, ice fishing, and bonding with second cousins. However, looking back Philip and I think he was a little young to have gone alone that week. He still needed some intensive parenting from us across the miles.
The first night he was there, he was frightened and phoned us on the cellphone (which we’d given him “just in case”) several times in the middle of the night crying. Everyone was sleeping and the house was dark. He didn’t feel comfortable, he was confused, and he didn’t want to be there. Things improved each day and by the last few days he was enjoying himself. On the plane flight home he choked on a piece of hard candy. He was talking about how scared he was over the choking incident for several days afterward. It must have been very scary indeed to feel vulnerable already on a big airplane alone and then to find himself at the mercy of a lump of candy lodged in his throat with no mom or dad around to help him.
Fast forward 4 years and off Aidan went on a giant airliner — as a regular passenger not as a minor — headed for one of the most overwhelming cities on the planet. What a difference. My boy had a wonderful time on his trip to New York City. He phoned us every night to tell us what he had done during the day and sent us photos of himself visiting the popular sites – the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Concorde, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and more. He had a ball.
He wanted our advice about practical things: how to handle a problem with the prepaid credit card we gave him, what to do about a rash on his neck, what he should wear on the plane flight home, and that sort of thing. But he didn’t need the kind of emotional support and encouragement he needed to get through his week in Minnesota. Our involvement this week wasn’t about helping him survive a difficult separation from us. It was about listening attentively while he shared his joy and enthusiasm, helping him navigate small bumps, encouraging his capability, and reminding him of our love and support across the miles.
He demonstrated a level of confidence and competence that, quite frankly, caught me off guard. My baby is really growing up. I found myself feeling a little blue for the first few days after he left, not just because I missed him, but because the evidence was mounting that my darling boy is beginning to find his own footing. My role as his mother is changing. I realize I need to grow into my role as the mom of a teen just he needs to grow into his big feet and hands. I recognize that our children are moving toward greater independence from the day they can crawl (even earlier). But Aidan’s self-assurance on this trip drove home for me that he’s beginning his journey toward adulthood, preparing himself for the destiny God has planned for him apart from me.
During the week I thought of the Gospel account of the boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2: 41-52). When he was 12 years old, Jesus became separated from his family during a caravan trip to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. Frantic, his parents went searching for him. Like any human parents, Mary and Joseph must have been sick with worry, wondering what had happened to their boy. After 3 days they “found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”
Jesus wasn’t anxious or frightened; He didn’t turn himself into the Passover lost and found. In fact, in the Temple the people who heard him speak were “astounded at his understanding and his answers.” Luke 2:47. At last reunited with her son, Mary said the same thing just about any mom would say: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Luke 2:48. Jesus responded: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Another translation is: “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s work? “
In both translations, Jesus is asserting his divine sonship and holy destiny. He’s letting Mary know that the time will come when he’ll have to set aside his family ties in order to attend to God’s plan for him. Mary was obedient to her Father, too. She didn’t grab her son by the ear and say,” Is that right, Mr. Smarty-Pants?! Just wait ‘til I get you home. I’ll teach you never to scare me again!” Jesus left the temple with his parents and “his mother kept all these things her heart”. It would be many years before Christ’s public ministry would begin, but this Little Leaving was a signal to Mary that Jesus’ Moment in History was coming.
Aidan has many years to go before he’s ready to leave home, and he’ll continue to need guidance and love as he gains spiritual power and wisdom. But for the first time I have glimpsed that day. Aidan’s moment will come: the moment when he realizes his vocation and when he decides how he will respond to God’s unique call for him. This week was just a Little Leaving, but there will come a day when I’ll release him to his future, to go about his Father’s work.
I will let go. I will let go not because I want to, but because I have to, because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s my own Yes to God, because it’s part of my journey in my vocation as a mother. When I think I can’t bear it, I’ll have our Blessed Mother to help me. She truly understands the suffering of parents as they release a child to his or her destiny, mission, and even to a cross.
Aidan is home now. He had a tremendous adventure that he’ll never forget. When I picked him at the airport I tried to play it cool so my mom-ness wouldn’t freak him out, but I think I cracked his back for him when I hugged him. We had dinner before we headed home. At one point during dinner he said, “I’d like to take another plane trip soon, but next time I want the whole family to go.”
This says a lot, doesn’t it? He is finding his footing, moving toward independence, but he still loves us, still appreciates us, and still feels connected to us. For now, he still needs us, though perhaps in a different way from his youth. Oh, my heart is so very glad!