We have a 21-point summer bucket list. Everything from visiting our favorite playgrounds and swimming in lakes to picnicking in parks and taking nature hikes.
We intend to add to this bucket list as the days and weeks go by (oh! strawberry picking!) because we want to do it all.
In a weird way, it feels like my first real summer with Ryan.
Ryan spent his first two summers in a daycare for 10 hours every day while Mike and I both worked. I spent his third summer splitting my time equally between trying to clean/unpack/organize our new house on the East Coast and taming his three-year-old tantrums.
Last summer, Ryan shared my time, attention and energy with his foster brother, BlueJay. I spent much of that summer trying to acclimate to a life with two kids and manage all the behaviors and emotional triggers common in children who come from a background of trauma.
This summer, BlueJay is gone, and it is the last season before I send Ryan off to the grind of full-time school, before the real start of his own little life outside of me. It feels like the last summer where he is truly all mine.
I’m crossing the threshold of one of the biggest parenting milestones of them all. Sure, walking was a big deal. First tooth and first word were neat. The day he could finally put on his own shoes and zip up his own jacket was something of a miracle, too.
But this… kindergarten… this is when the time will really start to fly. This is when we will start to spend most of each year lost in the daily grind of homework and after-school activities and quick dinners.
I am panicking just a bit that I’m going to blink once or twice and he’ll be asking to borrow my car so he can go pick out his tux for prom. I’m panicking that I’ll look back and think, “I had so much time with him, and I wasted too much of it.”
I’m afraid I will have wasted it by never letting the laundry pile up too much or by being perpetually annoyed by the red dining room rug that shows every last crumb and spec of anything.
I’m afraid I’m wasting it by handing over the iPad too often and not sitting on the floor to play dinosaurs often enough. I wonder how much longer he’ll even ask me to play. I wonder for how much longer he’ll swear he wants to marry me and that he intends to live with me forever.
I wonder how much longer he’ll say things like, “I just love spending time with you, Mommy.” I wonder how much longer he’ll take pride in being my grocery shopping helper, insisting that he put every single item on the belt for me and then unpacking and putting away every item once we’re home.
Does that end when they go to kindergarten and suddenly spend more of their waking hours with teachers and friends than they do with their own parents? Is that when my influence, which up until this point has always been the most important in his life, is slowly but surely chipped away and replaced by the influence of others?
What if I haven’t used his first five and a half years wisely enough because I’ve been too distracted with my own chores and to-do lists and writing projects?
On Ryan’s last day of preschool, one of his teachers sat in their last circle time and looked around at the kids she’d spent a year preparing for kindergarten and at their parents sitting with them. “These really are the best years of your life,” she told us so quietly, so sweetly and with a quiver in her voice.
That sentiment, most often delivered by much-older strangers, has always sort of annoyed me, my annoyance peaking during the toddler years. Oh, sure, he looks so sweet in the grocery cart, but that’s only because YOU’RE not the one who has had to pick up the snack cup he has thrown 62 times. Yes, it’s so adorable how he’s playing in the sand at the beach with his tiny sunglasses on and a shovel in his little hand, but listen: he’s LUCKY he’s cute after the way he screamed on the plane for five straight hours on the way here.
But when his teacher’s voice quivered with those words, I looked down at Ryan’s full head of fine, sandy-colored hair, at his long legs stuck out in front of him, and I started crying myself.
I finally saw what all those other well-intentioned strangers had seen. How even now, still fairly early in the parenting game, I look back and mostly remember the very best parts. Like how, at two years old, he’d raise his arms up to me when he wanted me to pick him up and say, “I hold you.”
All those early years, when well-meaning strangers told me I was in the midst of the best years of my life (despite the fact that it felt like a miracle that I was wearing a matching pair of shoes), they weren’t saying it wasn’t also the hardest years of my life. They weren’t saying it was the best because it was so fun all the time.
They meant these are the best years because they’re so hard and yet still so incredibly worth it. That’s why the countless hard moments fade away so quickly and all the shiny ones rise to the top and take up permanent residence in our memories.
When I was in the early parenting trenches, it always felt like I had more time. I’d have more patience tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would play more. Tomorrow, I would really listen to every word he said.
Suddenly, it feels like the amount of tomorrows ahead of me in which Ryan truly cares what I’m doing or what I think or whether I want to play are dwindling rapidly.
But they’re not gone yet.
So, I am taking our summer bucket list very seriously. Twenty-one items (and counting). If we don’t check off every item, that’s ok. That’s not the point. The point isn’t to cram in every last thing we possibly can; the point is to try to be more present.
The point is to remind myself to clean less and roam around outside more. To put aside all those swirling thoughts of whether we should foster again or whether we might adopt or whether the three of us will always remain the three of us. None of that matters right now.
What matters is savoring these final weeks before Ryan moves on to the next exciting stage of his own life. A stage in which he will need me a little less and will grow a little more outside of my own embrace.
Tomorrow, we’ll go to the zoo. I’ll pack the water and the snacks. Maybe I’ll even bring the stroller. If he gets tired, he’ll know he can count on Mommy to help push him through.