The story of parenting is one of stepping back and stepping away.
Instead of running into your arms, your daughter runs into the world.
Instead of babbling constantly to you, she prefers chatting with her friends.
Going off to school, first she cries and clings, then walks slowly away with a quick turn to wave, and later–a “goodbye, Mommy” and a sprint to the kids at the other end of the schoolyard.
Her teacher spends more time with her than you do. Her friends know more of her secrets.
Your son, who clung to you so that you would not leave preschool, is (too) soon not so eager to be hugged. He feels the shape of your female body, the one which once gave him comfort, and he pulls away self-consciously. He talks about sports, one of your least favorite topics. You are startled by the change in his voice when he calls from summer sleep-away camp. It’s so deep! Could that have happened since last week?
His face scratches when he gives you a kiss. He actually has to bend down to give you that kiss. You hold his arm as you walk along a dark street thinking, “I used to hold on to you to protect you, now I’m holding on for you to protect me.”
You are taken aback when you realize that your son’s girlfriend’s mother is depending on your kid to get her daughter home at night in one piece.
You hold tight, then release and step back when you say goodbye at the airport as they head off to college or to Israel. You bite back tears knowing that they will never come home in the same way again. That you and your child will never be the same again. Though you applaud their launch into the bigger world, you hope that God isn’t too busy to do alone what together you’ve been doing all those years–constantly watching, trying to avoid disasters large and small.
When my daughters left home for the first time, I believed that “a daughter is a daughter the rest of your life” and was comforted by that. When my “baby” left, it was a rite of passage for us both but one I had previous experience with and somehow I felt more ready than I had with his older sibs. But when my older son left, I felt bereft. I thought that our unusually close relationship, based on similar interests and temperament, would be irretrievably lost. I barely held in the tears as he walked alone through the airport gate and then turned to smile and wave. As he turned away, I lost it. I cried walking to the car, I cried in the car, I cried as we entered the house, and I fell on the bed sobbing.
The next year, when he was again packing up for another year abroad (at a yeshiva where he had to do guard duty with a rifle and I was terrified–not of terrorists–but that he’d shoot himself in the foot), I tearfully admitted how hard it had been for me to let him go the previous year. In response to his question why, I said that I thought we would never be as close as we had been. He smiled his crinkly-eyed smile, gave me a hug and said, “Well, now you know that that won’t happen.”
We step away again and again to give our children the freedom to become themselves. But we worry–first about the skinned knee we are not there to kiss and bandage, then about the broken heart we can’t heal and the inevitable poor decisions we can’t, and shouldn’t, correct. And we don’t stop worrying. If we’re lucky, our family expands and we get more and more people to worry about.
And, know, please, that time passes–the days slowly, the years quickly.
Now, I step back and look at my grown children. That capable little girl who loved playing dress-up and started a business in sixth grade is a well-respected professional with her own high heels. The little boy whose second grade poem was in the school newsletter is now an editor. The adolescent who was always a good shoulder for her friends, is a doctor who gets paid to listen and counsel. The teenager with the long hair and baggy, falling-down pants who so upset me when he drank beer, now, among other entrepreneurial projects, founded and owns a company producing artisanal beer.
It has been said that parents give their children “roots and wings.” So you dig those roots as deeply as you can and watch them soar. As they mature, you cheer their successes and mourn their disappointments. You encourage, support, and love.
Even after stepping back, you are still there.
And always, you love.