By Rachel Pieh Jones
My teenagers don’t live at home anymore and every time they go back to boarding school, every time they check-in under the Kenya Airways sign at the airport, I think, “How can something that is so good for them hurt me so deeply I can’t breathe?”
A silver brush filled with tangled long blondish-brown hairs rests on the IKEA shelf in my bathroom. The hairs are not mine, I have curly hair and never use a brush. There are more shoes at the front door than the three people in the house could ever wear. Candy wrappers are stuck to car seats and there is a load of salty, sandy laundry in the bathroom from our beach campout two days ago.
I walk around the house the day after my twin teenagers return to boarding school and pick up the things they have left behind, like brushes and towels and off season clothes. I fold bed sheets and tip mattresses against the wall so rats or cockroaches don’t take up residence over the next three months. I scrub toothpaste dribbles from the sink and scoop up still-damp bath towels. I rearrange books and replace game pieces from Settlers of Catan.
I pull open the refrigerator door to take inventory. They devoured fruits and vegetables, my fresh baked breads, cereal, cheese. They left dirty dishes in the sink from the quadruple batch of brownies we made yesterday, wrapped in aluminum foil, and packed into plastic buckets for the trek back to school.
Henry likes to drink out of the glassware, so there is a clear glass balanced on the edge of the kitchen counter. Maggie likes to use the teacups she puffy-painted with friends years ago, even though the puffy paint has mostly peeled off. She left one on the table and a damp ring is forming around the base.
They left behind sandals that no longer fit rapidly growing feet, t-shirts so beloved they are torn nearly to shreds, swim suits that they won’t wear in Kenya, far from the ocean that we drive by every day here in Djibouti.
Here in Djibouti, here at home. They still call Djibouti home but since seventh grade they have spent more of their time at the school in Kenya, the vast expanse of Ethiopia stretching between our borders. Every time they leave, at the start of each term after a month or six weeks home, I walk through the house and put back the pieces.
The last time they returned, after summer break, the flight left at 3:00 a.m. My husband drove them and they left behind their little sister, sleeping upstairs. I stood at the front gate and waved until the car turned the corner even though no one could see me in the dark. Then I leaned against the door frame and cried for a while, went upstairs to kiss Lucy on the cheek, and tried to forget that in the morning there would be only one cereal bowl stuck with dried milk to the table, not three.
The days following Henry and Maggie’s departures are foggy, slower, thick. The family members left at home start to shift; we rearrange our relationships with each other. There is less cooking, less laundry, less cleanup. I can return to writing projects that languished, friendships I’ve ignored, and organizational projects I’d only dabbled in during their vacation.
Lucy straightens her bedroom, she likes it more organized than Maggie does and Lucy carefully refolds her clothes and returns Littlest Pet Shop toys to their proper storage boxes. She stuffs the play clothes back into the basket and I am filled with gratitude that Maggie, though thirteen, still plays dress-up and tea party and giggles with her sister, their time together now precious not annoying.
Lucy moves squashed ping pong balls out of her path and rides Henry’s RipStick around the tiled porch. He, too, knows the time with his younger sister is special and he left behind the echoes of hours spent wrestling and hitting one another with padded sticks.
My husband, Tom, doesn’t change his schedule as much as I do while the kids are home, as a university professor, PhD student, and director of our organization in Djibouti, he doesn’t have that flexibility. But now there are fewer arms and legs flying around the living room during wrestling matches, fewer arguments over Wii remotes, fewer heated debates over Arsenal football versus Liverpool.
As I clean up the things left behind and as we transition our routines from life with two teenagers in the house to life without them, I recognize that they have left behind something much deeper and foundational, much harder to pick up and put back together.
They left behind a mother who feels like a failure, like an almost-empty-nester at thirty-five years old which is far too young, in my opinion. No matter that this is what Henry and Maggie want, no matter that they are thriving and excelling at this school more than they ever did at the French schools in Djibouti. No matter that this expatriate life has given them the gift of being loved, of having a home, and of belonging in at least three countries.
No matter that they are smiling, that the ‘I’ll miss you mom’ and the ‘I love you’ are sincere but the eyes are already turned toward school and friends. No matter that I knew from the moment I gave birth via vaginal delivery and c-section on the same day that wise motherhood choices are rarely the easy ones. Thirteen years later that scar is still sensitive, these twins left their mark.
The feeling that I have somehow failed them, or failed as a mother, flow from the lie that choosing boarding school means I have stepped out of the parenting role. But what I know, deeply, is that choosing boarding school is made everyday from that exact parenting role. And while the tears flow out of the feelings, the conviction and the strength to step into the next three months apart flow out of the knowing.
Because these teenaged twins also left behind a mother who knows she is a good mother. This choice isn’t me failing at parenthood, it isn’t me handing off the responsibility and gift of my children to someone else, it isn’t separate from my role as a mother. This choice of sending our children to boarding school is part of our parenting, it is what being responsible for the gift of these teenagers in our context and in our family and according to our needs and values looks like. It is me being the best possible mother I know how to be. And because it breaks my heart and leaves me crying against doorframes and into pillows and at stop signs, it feels like failure.
But just because something hurts doesn’t mean it is bad, wrong, or failed. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest things my teenagers leave behind. And I hope it is something they also take with. The realization that life won’t be easy, comfortable, or pain-free and the confidence that this is okay.
I am the kind of mother who used to look at a skinned knee and say, “Look at your beautiful blood. Let’s clean it out and get back on that bike as soon as possible.” I never imagined I could shelter them from pain and struggle, from what the world will bring to bear with force and grief and aggression. But I can create a shelter, a place for them to spread Legos out wide and to wrestle their little sister and wear clown wigs, a place for them to bring their messes and their gut-busting laughs, a place out of which they can gather courage and experience grace.
Now, with my heart in shreds and knowing that yes something that hurts this bad can be a good thing, I watch my husband drive the kids to the airport. Or, I watch them push their suitcases through security and I hold my hands over my grief and say, “Look at my beautiful teenagers. I want them to stay with me forever. Go with courage, go with grace.”
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.
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