GWEN ROCKWOOD: The Rockwood Files

Gwen Rockwood: Two decades later, first child celebrates first solo birthday

When I woke up this morning, I had one thought circling in my head: "My kid is 20. He's 20! I am the mother of a human who is 20. How did this happen? Wasn't I cutting up hot dogs for him five minutes ago?"

Then I had a pang of sadness because this is the first time I'm not with my firstborn on his birthday. The invisible umbilical cord stretches nearly three hours away to his college town.

Today is a strange sequel to the day Adam turned 10. While he celebrated his double-digit age, I felt panic -- faced with the realization that I'd already had more time with him at home than I would have before he left for college. I was more than halfway through the phase of his life when I could keep him close and legally tell him what to do.

And then whoosh! Ten more years flew by just like that. And here we are on his 20th birthday with hundreds of miles between us. I keep thinking back to the day he arrived in my hospital room -- which strangely feels like a million years ago but also like 10 minutes ago, all at the same time.

I remember the moment the nurse placed him in my arms, and I couldn't stop looking at his face -- taking in the details I'd only imagined. I kept thinking, "Look! This is a real person!" (I don't know why it surprised me. Had I thought we were going to deliver a puppy?)

For nine months, I'd had this generic sense of "baby" in my mind, but it wasn't until I saw his face that I fully recognized his personhood. He had strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes and a serious-looking expression on his mouth. And Tom and I had somehow been put in charge of this tiny human. We were supposed to help him grow up to be whoever he was going to be. It was the most overwhelming, terrifying, exhilarating moment of my life.

Fast forward to today -- two full decades later. Despite all my experience with Adam and his two younger siblings, I still often feel overwhelmed, terrified and exhilarated. That baby who showed up 20 years ago is out there doing what parents hope and pray for -- studying in college, meeting people, learning how to do grown-up things like get a flat tire fixed, schedule his own haircuts, do his Christmas shopping.

I'm amazed at the resiliency of not only my 20-year-old kid but all the other 20-year-olds out there. For people so young, they've lived through a rough time at a pivotal age. When most of the world shut down in March of 2020, they lost the end of what was supposed to be their carefree, joyous senior year of high school.

Then the first semester of college was swallowed up by the same crisis. They had to put their lives on pause for the pandemic and have only recently emerged from that covid cocoon, only to be met with another headline-making variant.

One day I imagine Adam's grandchildren will get an assignment to ask their grandparents what it was like to live through the covid pandemic. He will tell them about the toilet paper drought, the masks, the tension and unease, the heartbreaking headlines. Maybe he'll tell them how it felt to be right on the verge of leaving the nest only to be held back because the very air we breathed wasn't safe.

This morning I texted our new 20-year-old some happy birthday messages with digital confetti and balloons. We've already planned to do a belated birthday party with him when he comes home after his college finals. And I pray this next year of life brings him the kind of freedom and joy we all need right now -- especially all those baby birds making their first solo flight.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at [email protected]. Her book is available on Amazon.

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