Learning to let a child go

Parenting is a series of moments of holding on tight and letting go. This week my baby girl left for the University of Toronto, and I’m reflecting on the rollercoaster of parenting that has led to this point.

How do you hold on tight enough, but not too tight when you love someone more than you love yourself? They say if you love someone, set them free, right? How do you watch half of yourself walk out the door to start their life? Me, I’ve been focusing on how much I love my kids, and the life they deserve to have out from under my roof, even if I worry that something inside me is shattering.  

My happy, selfish life ended the day that my daughter was born. I remember worrying that the car seat wasn’t put in correctly for the ride home from the hospital, shocked that the nurses and doctors would send me home without more knowledge on what to do to care for this new human. It was a soul-crushing responsibility at times to be the source of food and protection and care for another human. It was also the beginning of my happy selfless life, where I chose to put myself second, or third, so that those around me could flourish. Mothers are special creatures indeed, and it’s often too easy to lose ourselves in the needs of others, in fact it’s almost expected of us by society.

I had postpartum depression after her birth (and after my son’s), and I felt so alone, but when her colic abated and she laughed her hearty throaty laugh, I felt lifted off the ground, like light shining from my extremities was floating me. My daughter reintroduced magic and wonder into my life with her joy and awe at all of her firsts – like the first time a snowflake landed on her tongue, the first time she felt a pet’s soft fur, and when she tasted something new (like avocado) that she loved and she literally started to vibrate.

Over the years, my kids taught me, or reminded me, probably as much as I have taught them, and I realize that the time I had with my daughter was so precious, even the hard days. She was barely out of kindergarten when I knew that my responsibility went far beyond just feeding her and providing her shelter. I had to do my best to release my phenom out into the world, as a strong independent thinker, able to take care of herself, find happiness, and make the world a better place.

While I wanted to at times, I was never one to bubble wrap my children, but if they were going to take a risk, I wanted it to be a safe one. While I didn’t want them to fall, I wanted them to know how to dust themselves off and keep moving forward. I wanted them to really know that I would always have their backs, no matter how stupid a decision they made. I didn’t praise them unless they deserved it, and many times they didn’t succeed but I praised them for their effort, because that was the important part. I taught them about the importance of positive self-talk, respectful communication, swinging the bat, of doing the hard work, and of playing hard too. I tried to lead by example, being passionate about life, by believing in excellence and trying to leave things better than I found them.

We had raw conversations about sex, drugs, relationships, and lots of messy stuff with my kids. I used my time in the car when they were in the backseat, or while they were in the kitchen with me to avoid eye contact during uncomfortable conversations. I wanted them to know that everything wasn’t as easy in life as they’d had it.  

They were my sous chefs from a young age, so that they could appreciate good food. We travelled together extensively so that their appetites would be whetted for adventure and knowledge. When we didn’t have the money, we found adventure in the everyday, even if it was just getting a new fruit or vegetable from the grocery store to try out, or taking a different route home from the store and checking out a new neighbourhood.

I bought them multi-head screwdrivers for Christmas, and taught them how to use them. They had to do their own laundry, help with cleaning the house, pet care, and make their own lunches. The kids grumbled sometimes that they didn’t have to lift a finger at their dad’s house, but I knew it was the right thing to do to make them responsible for more than their schoolwork. Now that my daughter is leaving, I’m sure it was right, because I’m not also having to cram in a bunch of life lessons before she leaves.

It’ll be odd not watching movies and binge-watching shows with her, talking about all of the minutiae of our days, having her hug me randomly in the kitchen, getting a gentle head bonk before bed every night, but I know we’ll adapt and become stronger.

As emotionally fragmenting as this new beginning for her is for me, I am also her number one fan. I’m excited to watch her as she soars out of the nest, spreading her wings, while it feels like only yesterday that I was sitting on the eggs, keeping them warm. It won’t be long before my nest is empty, and the fear and excitement of thinking about what my own hopes and dreams are will face me.

I look forward to bonding with my son on deeper levels over the next few years. We will fill the void that her physical absence leaves with calls and visits from her, focusing on not what we lost but what she is gaining and learning. As a family, as a team, it’s simple gestalt theory, and I celebrate that our collective is growing and evolving. As much as I want to grab hold of my daughter right now, I know this is one of those painful, important, and necessary parenting moments of letting go.

To all the mothers out there who defined their lives around getting to this moment, congratulations, we made it. Now who wants to go for a drink?

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