I think the hardest thing about being a parent is learning how to let go. It seems like it would be an easy thing, particularly since children tend to suck up a lot of time, effort, and energy. I remember, when my daughter was a tiny baby, there were so many things I looked forward to: the time when she could finally talk and tell me what was bothering or upsetting her … the time when diapers would be a distant memory … the time when she would finally eat only “regular” food … the time when she would be big enough to explore and interact with her surroundings … and on and on.
Back then, when she was still tiny and relied on me for everything — when she, literally, couldn’t go anywhere without me — I thought about the future with a sort of misty-eyed fondness. I thought about how it would be so nice to have more free time. I thought about how it would be much less stressful, once she could tell me what was bothering her, as opposed to trying to interpret various cries of distress. I thought about how nice it would be once I no longer had to carry that heavy diaper bag around. I thought about how lovely it would be to save on the expense of baby food, once she started eating the same things the rest of us ate.
I thought about a lot of things.
What I didn’t think about was how hard — how absolutely terrifying — it would be for me to let go. I didn’t realize each new adventure and experience would take her a little farther away from me, along her path toward becoming a teenager and, eventually, an adult. I didn’t think about how I was going to feel, for example, standing on the curb and watching her walk into school the first day of second grade: the first time she told me, “No, Mama. I can go by myself.” I didn’t realize how frightening it was to be the person left behind. Sometimes, I feel like I spent nine months working to bring her into this world, and I will spend the entire rest of her life fighting the urge to stuff her back inside my uterus. Because, once your kids are out there, they are out there. They are part of the world, and you can’t always be with them.
Today, my daughter headed off to Philadelphia for a school field trip. She has been excited about this trip for months, and she was bubbling over with enthusiasm and eagerness this morning. This is the first time, since she started pre-school, that I have not gone as one of the chaperones. And, over the week or so leading up to this trip, I came to realize my biggest fears as a parent are letting go and not being there. Perhaps, they really are the same fear, just all wrapped around each other. I don’t know, but I do know it took a monumental effort for me to smile this morning, kiss my daughter good-bye, and drive away from the school. I looked back and saw her standing on the sidewalk in front of the school, chattering excitedly with her friends and teacher, and felt like some invisible hand had reached into my chest and wrapped my heart in a vice-like squeeze. If I had been alone, I might not have been able to leave. Luckily, my husband was driving, which meant I didn’t have the option of turning around to snatch her up and run for the safety of home.
As I was telling her good-bye, she whispered in my ear, “Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home tonight.”
And so I drove away feeling unsure and inadequate, but also knowing I don’t have to learn how to let go all at one time. For now, this is enough, and the rest will come. Baby steps, which will teach me how to walk before I have to know how to run.