Over the farm fields of Indiana, a sun set and colored the sky with shades of pinks and yellows before they were eclipsed with darker hues of purple and navy, just a tease of summer's sky as warm days still gave way to cool nights on this Sunday evening in June. The fields were awakening after their dormant winter; soil newly tilled, seeds freshly planted, crops not yet crisp with growth. In the air and on the ground, I could feel the change of season... it was knocking, beckoning, but still forthcoming.
After a long weekend spent outside readying yards and gardens for summer, my tired little family traveled quietly through the middle of America. With our wind-chapped cheeks and sore muscles, a hum of a Disney DVD sounded from the back of the car as a hushed conversation between my husband and I filled the front of the car. Ohio to Illinois, four hours over the familiar route that unites my life as a parent with my life as a child. Lake to city, it is on this route, and in these lands, that my family roots have been laid, growing deeper and wider with each generation.
As the sky darkened and the road stretched out, an important statement presented itself, one made by my 9-year-old son: "Mom, I don't really know what I was born to do."
Fueled by having spent the day outside, I conjured up the energy to engage.
"What do you mean, Jack?"
I knew it was important to keep the conversation going. It was as if he had tossed a tiny pebble at my feet, and now it was up to me to pick it up and throw it back. He wanted to play, to talk more. In the intimacy of the dark car on a long drive after a tiring day, this was his way of slowly inviting me in. Just a crack in the window opening himself up to further dialogue. Relaxation fell upon us and self-consciousness slipped away.
"You know, what I was put here to do in life," he continued. "I don't know what that is."
I took a deep breath and my husband turned down the radio, but yielded to my response. As my son gets older, I know he will turn to his father more often with questions and for advice. It makes me happy for them both that he has this resource at the ready. But it makes me very proud that, for now, this is still my territory with my son. Mother-to-son, or rather mother-to-child. He and I share a bond of curiosity, pensiveness and deep thoughts that can be both productive and distracting. So for right now, these kind of bigger, more thought-provoking conversations are still my stronghold.
Our best conversations usually come in the car during a drive. I'm a captive audience for him behind the wheel, and he's a captive audience for me, strapped in his car seat. When he was a preschooler, he asked me why dinosaur bones were in the ground and not their skin, and what part of them went to Heaven. When he was very young, Jack encountered a child in a wheelchair and while I drove, we talked about what he would say to the child and he replied, "I would tell him that I love him."
It is in this medium that we have discussed race, adoption and marriage for all people who love one another. In lighter moments, it is from the backseat that he has planned out who will feed his pet goldfish when he goes to college, and more recently, asked about where he and his sisters will sleep when they return to our house as adults with their own children during the holidays.
Its no surprise that as he has gotten older, Jack's questions haven't been as frequent. He has grown and our family has grown. With this growth has come chaos and a middle row of fussing baby sisters to separate any sort of third-row conversation from the front seat.
So, on this night, in the cornfields of Indiana, as the sun set on the weekend and on our trip, I was more than happy to address this statement that made its way to the front of the car and questioned what my son was born to do with his life.
I explained to Jack that he didn't need to know what he was born to do just yet. That many of us are still trying to figure it out. We talked about how important it is to try many things so you know what you enjoy and what you don't enjoy. I told him that he can look for some clues. He asked what I meant and I explained that some things come easier and some things may challenge him and that's a clue. I told him that another clue is to think about how he feels when he is doing certain things.
We talked about how he may think he was made to do something at one stage of his life, and something else during another stage of his life. Interests change and passions change as responsibilities change.
In closing, I said that one thing I knew for sure was that throughout every stage, I believe we are made to make the world a better place. I added emphasis to my tone and said that we should always make a room happier just by entering it. We should treat others in a way that will make them smile and better their day. And that we should treat the earth in a way that will make it a better place for animals and humans to live.
As an example, I told him that whenever a new baby is born, I always say the same thing in the card or congratulatory message that our family sends. He asked what that message is and I told him:
"Welcome. May the world be good to you, and you to it."
He seemed to ponder this message and silence settled back into the car as my family made its way from the home state of my childhood to the home state of my children's childhood. On this late-spring evening, when the blossoms and crops of summer sat ready to bud, I felt another shift in seasons, because I know that my son's boyhood will someday give way to manhood.
When this time comes, I hope that I always let him know that I am open and available for his conversations and questions. Although I know that as he grows, he will work through these thoughts with friends, colleagues, lovers and with his own children.
But for now, he's a boy and I'm his mother and this is our thing: backseat questions and front seat responses, working together to formulate our shared answer. Because conversations, like road trips, yield the most memorable outcomes when they meander. Sometimes they end up in a place that you couldn't have imagined back when you started. So as our conversation came to a close, I sat back and felt deeply satisfied with the mothering I had just offered to my oldest child, the boy who made me a mother.
A moment later, another statement made its way from the back of the car to the front of the car as this same 9-year-old boy let out a mischievous laugh and said, "I think there are crumbs in my underwear." I smiled and turned to my husband, who was already starting to address it.