I caught myself looking at my oldest boy’s feet the other day as we sat on the couch together. I remember when he was born – eleven years ago, but seemingly yesterday – how he had these tiny little perfect feet with nary a line or wrinkle on them anywhere. They were irresistible,  I kept coming back to them those first days of motherhood, counting and recounting the toes to make sure all ten were there and marveling: I grew these.  

Now his feet were almost man feet. They can stink something fierce if left in a shoe without a sock for too long, and the toenails are always a little bit longer and a smidge dirtier than I would like. Those feet are not mine, they are his, and their principal job is to carry an almost teenage boy into and through a big scary world. If I think about this too long and let my eyes mist over with the emotion of it all, in the blurriness I can remember:

When I was six I went out for a walk and got lost. We were visiting my grandmother in Massachusetts. I must have been especially annoying after all those hours in the car because I remember my mother shooing me out the door and saying, “Just go walk around the block. Burn off some energy.”

There was a problem with this, I quickly realized. At home, we lived on a dead-end street, and I didn’t even know what walking around the block was. “What’s that even mean?” I yelled from the sidewalk.

“Just keep turning at the corners!” The screen door slammed shut. It was warm and sunny and I had to squint to look anywhere but at my own feet, but I was also pretty excited. I had never gone out for a walk like this on my own before.

At the first corner I turned, and again after that, and pretty soon I got a little smug about how I was now basically a professional around-the-block walker. It went on this way for some time, a half hour or maybe an hour. Eventually, I realized I was really far from anything familiar. I started to panic and a woman must have seen my face because she bent down to me and said gently, “are you lost, honey?”

Instead of answering I burst into tears. Lost. Yes. That was it.

Sometimes when I am raising this boy I feel like that. I’ve been fumbling through this mothering thing since those first days, when my job was to sustain, usually with my body – my breasts or my arms or my voice in his ear, my hips swaying or my hands patting or my lips kissing those toes. I’ve been turning at each corner, sometimes on autopilot, and then one evening I looked up and years had gone by, so many streets walked down together, some I’m too tired to even remember. I’m different too.

This love for a child who has long since become a boy, and is well on his way to being a man, challenges me in ways I don’t yet fully understand.  Stupidly, I had thought the basics were covered – once he knew how to provide his own rest and sustenance and cleansing – that my job would be easier, but that is proving to be very untrue.

He can go for hours, even days, without seeming to notice that I am in the same house and then, suddenly, I look over as we drive from place to place and his hand has reached across from the passenger seat and gripped mine with a ferocity that I am unable to completely decipher. His need is unpredictable, almost raw in its intensity, but it’s still there.

I have always joked that he was our “practice” baby, the first baby born to two people who, while well educated in many respects, were completely clueless on how to raise children. It makes me ache to think of the mistakes we made along the way with him, not out of malice or laziness or any reason other than genuine ignorance. Four babies later, even as I am becoming an old pro at the basics – I can change a diaper and nurse a howling baby in the dead of the night without even having to open my eyes – the reality is we will always be doing it for the first time with him.

He was my first newborn, my first set of kissably perfect baby feet, my first to take wobbly steps on those feet, and he will be the first to walk himself right out of my house and into that world. I want to sit him down and draw a map, make sure he doesn’t make my mistakes or end up lost somewhere all alone, but I know eventually, he is going to have to forge his own path. The reality is, I’m still so unsure myself a lot of the time. Who am I to lead?

“Just keep turning at the corner,” I hear myself whisper. Whether I am talking to him or to me, I’m not sure. If (when) we get lost, at least we will be together.