Basic Instincts

At 5:15 a.m. one day last week, I sprang from my pillow, wide awake.

No alarm had rung, no thunder rolled, no husband had yet stirred, nor did I have to be anywhere before 6 a.m.

So why did I jolt from my dreams over an hour before I normally would? Because my eldest son had drawn the early shift at one of his part-time summer jobs and was due for duty at 5:30 a.m.

At 19, he has happily weathered one year at college without ever sleeping in and missing a class or an early morning work assignment, and each of my three kids long ago developed the habit of setting their own alarms on school days and other dates when a certain waking time is required.

But somewhere deep inside, I knew my son needed to rise sooner than usual, and my internal clock somehow set itself to alert me to listen for the sounds that would indicate he was on his way exactly when he needed to be. It wasn’t until after I’d heard him descend the stairs, make his way out the door and start the car that I was able to fall back to sleep for a period.

Motherly instincts die hard, and even when we no longer need them, they don’t necessarily disappear. Before I was a mother myself, I remember watching (with a slight degree of disbelief) moms of preschoolers stand, swaying gently back and forth, as though they were still quieting infants in their arms–though those former infants were now tearing around the park on their own strong legs and showed no signs of slowing down for their mothers and a nap time lullaby anytime soon.

After motherhood found me, the “Mommy Sway” became part of my kinetic repertoire, too, and likely didn’t take leave of me until my youngest was nearing 5. Where’s the “off” switch for parenting patterns?

Another mommy trait which my kids–all teenagers now–frequently tease me for still possessing is the habit, ingrained through years of “teachable moments,” of pointing out people, places and things as we make our way about town or further afield.

“Look! It’s a cow! Moo! Moo! Cows give us milk…and ice cream!” I might once have detailed as we cruised down a rural highway. Or, in a city, “Do you see the blonde lady with the red purse? She’s tall,” or, “There’s a baby! Wave to the smiling baby!”

These days, if I lapse into that type of behavior (arguably with more advanced vocabulary and perhaps to draw attention to something subtler), I invariably suffer the teenage eye-roll and earn a response more like this: “WOW, mom, how old do you think I am?”

Hmmmm….. Good question. While, intellectually, I am well aware of my kids’ correct ages and know that not one of them is under 5’7, sometimes the Mommy Instinct betrays me and I’m back to the days when the slightest dark-of-night crib movement had me on the run to check the baby’s breathing, or my mind’s eye shows me a cheerful 13-month-old feeding himself in a high chair rather than the long-limbed 19-year-old currently before me who inhales his lunch while simultaneously absorbing news feeds on his laptop.

“Hey, it’s because I took the time and made the effort to tell you all those things that you got so smart, kid,” I sometimes retort to an impatient teen who chides me for sharing observations he/she can now easily grasp without my help. “How do you think you learned what a cow was in the first place?”

Such insights are met with the occasional sigh or sheepish shrug, and I guess that’s understandable. I feel the same way when my own mother persists in calling me “Janie,” even though no one else has used that name for me since I was about 6.

I get it, mom (even if I don’t like it!). And I also know why I can’t help but awaken when my kid has to be somewhere at 5:30 a.m., even though he is perfectly capable of getting up and heading off to work by himself, “big boy” that he is.

Diapering? Easy to leave behind. Caring? Not so much.