They say parenting is a long process of letting go. From the moment the umbilical cord is cut, your child sets out on a journey toward independence. And that journey, exhilarating and terrifying for the child, is even tougher on the parent, whose job is to learn to let go when everything within you cries out to protect, to shelter…and to hang on.
I keep wrestling with why the whole “enjoy it” thing evokes such a strong reaction in me…strong enough to spark multiple blog posts!—and it seems every time I puzzle over it, I come back to my mother.
Throughout my childhood, my mother showed an astonishing capacity for letting her children be independent. We lived in the country, ¼ mile from a family of boys close to our age, who had go-cart trails intersecting three wooded properties. We’d play for hours in the woods, swinging on vines across waterfalls, building and climbing treehouses that met no kind of building code—even climbing nails to somebody’s deer hunting stand, which was nothing but a convenient perch in an oak tree, sixty or seventy feet up. When Mom needed us home, she’d stand outside and cup her hands and shout toward the west woods, then the east, since she didn’t know for sure which way we’d gone.
We jumped off big round hay bales. Two was the norm, three terrifying but doable. Once, my feet slipped off the edge of the stack when it was rafter-tall in a barn that can house a combine with room to spare. I hung from the rafters, knowing I couldn’t get back, and the only option was letting go. Which I did.
All that by the age of ten.
As a preteen, I got my first job picking strawberries at the apple orchard. It was about three miles from our house, and my sister and I rode our bicycles there on gravel and county highways without shoulders. Once we had money to spend, we’d ride our bikes into town, making a big loop from Grandma’s house to the library and downtown shops, and then to Wal Mart. We’d be gone for hours.
And then, for some reason, I got scared of growing up. My parents had to plant a boot on my butt and kick me out of the house, because I was scared to leave home. My mother had to force me to learn to drive. She battled me through it because she needed me to drive my younger sisters to school. Then I didn’t want to work. After an outing with my friends, she greeted me with, “Did you have fun? That’s nice. You’re not doing it again until you get a job.”
I need to be clear: this was not a neglectful home. Every night we ate dinner as a family. My parents kept contact with what we were doing and who our friends were, all our interests. One night when a close shift at Taco Bell ran late due to multiple buses and the resulting mess, a fellow worker and I de-stressed in the parking lot by turning our car radios up and dancing the electric slide before coming home. When I drove in the driveway an hour and a half later than usual, the house was ablaze with light, my dad headed out the door to look for me, my mother standing at the top of the stairs in tears. It hadn’t occurred to me that they’d even know what time I got home, because they were always in bed.
But we were expected to do our own homework, without supervision—though we could ask questions if we needed to. We were expected to practice our music without being babysat through it. For several years, I was paid to make dinner for the whole family so Mom could go help Dad in the field.
I know the argument against everything I’m holding up as an ideal: it’s a different time now, and country living is less frightening than city. But I don’t buy it. Wide open spaces with no people around to witness if something happens? The jagged edges of two generations’ junk hiding in tall grasses? Bluffs to fall off, into jagged rocks?
The world wasn’t any less terrifying for my parents. They just handled it differently. They were always there when I needed them—when I got food poisoning, when I had to go to court for causing a car accident—but they were the anti-helicopter parent. They have approached every new stage of their life with incredible grace: adolescent children, empty nest, grandkids, caring for parents. They aren’t afraid to age. And I think this is because they have chosen to embrace letting go.
This is what I aspire to as a parent. It’s about balance, about enjoying the good parts without glossing over the bad, without over-sentimentalizing any stage. It is possible to enjoy the present without regretting when it’s time to move on. My parents have proven it. I pray every day that I achieve what they have.