Here's Why My Kids' Transition to Middle School Hit Me the Hardest
Rebecca Eanes, author of The Gift of a Happy Mother, reveals why life with big kids hurts the most.
I’ve noticed something weird. When we have little kids, moms talk to each other about how we’re feeling. We discuss all those swirling emotions of love, awe, joy, exhaustion, and worry. There’s a camaraderie among moms of littles.
When we have big kids, particularly middle school kids, moms talk to each other about what we’re doing. It’s “Oh, we are really busy doing this and doing that,” and no one says a peep about all the feelings of parenting kids this age. I think it’s time we talk about it!
It hurts like hell.
This is the age when the end comes into sight and it can feel absolutely horrifying. This is the age when you’re no longer the center of their universe. They start to pull away, and it’s like ripping a Band-Aid off that’s been glued to you for eleven years. This is the end of act 1, people, and coming to grips with that is a painful process. Or is it just me? Tell me it’s not just me!
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This has been a time of reckoning for me. When my littles became big, it hit me like an infant car seat to the hip bone that they wouldn’t be under my feet forever. During the year my children turned eleven and nine, I literally had weeks of grieving about this fact. For some reason, my baby boy turning nine was a gut punch. I remember sobbing to my husband about how they were growing up so fast and it was completely unfair and frankly quite disobedient of them, as I’d told them many times to stay small! I cried that I’d never be so loved again and it was a raw, beating, deep kind of ache. Still, when I think about it, I fold up into a quivering mess. That’s what this really boils down to for me—ever being so loved again. Oh, my heart. I know they love me, don’t get me wrong. They still tell me every day, but let’s face it, I’ll soon be tossed aside like a bologna string when a new girl steals their hearts.
My husband looked me right in the eyes and said, “Yes, your relationships are going to change, but that’s natural and how it should be.” The nerve! That’s not helping! I know it’s natural, but it still hurts, okay?
I suspect the reason moms of middle schoolers don’t talk about this is fear of judgment. We can hardly say anything in regard to motherhood these days without that fear, it seems. I don’t want to sound like I’m too clingy. I don’t want to be called names related to flying aircrafts. I’m not keen on being perceived as the needy mom who just can’t let her precious snowflake grow up. So I don’t tell the other moms about my tears and fears. Instead, I just say, “Yep, we have this tonight, that tomorrow, and another thing on Saturday. So busy!” Then I wonder in secret if they even REALIZE THEIR BABIES ARE HALF GROWN!
Sometimes when my kids are gone somewhere, I’ll notice how quiet it is and I’ll think, My God, this is what it’s going to be like. It sounds peaceful for a couple of hours, but then I can’t stand it anymore. The silence is deafening. When they get home, I’m so happy to hear their loud chatter echo throughout the house again.
From the moment I knew they existed, I have loved these boys every moment and with every breath. They are my world, and for more than a decade, I have been theirs. I’ve kissed their scrapes and held their hands. I’ve been the one they run to, lean on, and talk to. I won’t always be their number one, and I’ve been aware of that fact from the day they were placed in my arms. In fact, one of the first things I did after giving birth to my first son was call my mother‑in‑law to apologize for taking her son away. I realized at the moment when I held my son for the first time what it must have felt like for her to let my husband go. And now my own letting go is getting close enough for me to see it clearly, and wow. This feels harder than those sleep-deprived days of caring for a newborn, and it seems it’s not just me after all!
In a study published in Developmental Psychology, psychologists Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla surveyed more than twenty-two hundred mothers with children ranging in age from infant to early adulthood and found that middle school was the most challenging time for mothers. Their data reflected a gradual but consistent increase in maternal distress that peaks when children are in middle school. Luthar said, “Many mothers aren’t aware that the big separation from offspring, the one that really hurts, doesn’t occur when children leave the nest, but when they psychologically pull away from their mothers. This is a time of psychological metamorphosis for both mother and child.”
Psychological metamorphosis! That’s exactly what I’m experiencing. There is a silver lining, though. Here’s what else the authors of the study had to say. “Regarding the later years of motherhood, our findings support suggestions that the ‘empty nest’ syndrome is largely a myth. Mothers of adult children reported the least role overload, and on measures of stress, parenting experiences...they fared significantly better than mothers of middle-schoolers.” However, study or no study, I’ve decided not to spend these years distressed because I do have a choice. And so do you.
I handled this motherhood evolution like any rational, sane mother would. I ugly cried. I told my dog about how much it hurt to let go a little, how I’d give anything to have chubby toddler arms wrapped around my neck again, how I wish I could still pick them up and rock them in my arms. She cocked her little head to the side, long dachshund ears flopping, and almost looked empathetic. I think she gets me. I ugly cried some more. Ice cream came into play. Then I decided that, yes, act 1 is over, but the show must go on! So I dried up my face, moisturized really well (because, aging!), and got ready to step onstage for act 2.
This transition to life with big kids requires a rearranging of roles and a rediscovering of self. Now I’ve got to learn when to hold tighter to trust and more loosely to hands. I’ve got to figure out where I fit in with these small man children. I decided I could forever feel sorry for myself and be sad, thinking my best days were behind me, or I would make more great memories to cherish and enjoy each day with my big kids. My saving realization was that I can choose to be grateful for these years. I can choose to live happy right where I am. I can choose to see through a positive lens. I want to sail through these years with grace, open arms, and an attitude of gratitude because they may not be little anymore, but they’re still here with me to love and to enjoy, and that’s just what I plan to do. And when the day comes that their bags are packed and they’re ready to leave my home, well, I’ll just go with them.
Scooch over, darling, and make room for me. You’re paying the rent now. Bring me a Diet Coke. Hey, son, I’m hungry. Make me a sandwich?
I kid. Probably.
Adapted from The Gift of a Happy Mother by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2019, Rebecca Eanes.