With each milestone our kids achieve, we have to let go just a little bit more.
“Good parents give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is and wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them.” Jonas Salk
For me, the “letting go” started with the birth of my son. The little person whom I had fed, sheltered and attended to with little effort was suddenly thrust into the world and immediately learned to breathe, suck, drink and regulate his body temperature all on his own.
A magic moment. And yet, I still remember feeling the physical emptiness of no longer carrying my child beneath my ribs. That lasted for the first few weeks. It was also difficult to have others hold the baby. He was no longer “all mine.”
I had just begun to learn the lesson all parents eventually learn from their children. They have come through us, not from us, and while we are critical in providing them with the stable roots of love, nourishment, comfort and security, our children are also meant to have wings. They must fly to become more of who they really are, and we are the ones who must learn to support their flights, witness them, and celebrate their victories.
And oh, how joyful are these victories! The milestones we anticipate so excitedly, cameras poised to capture the moment: first smile, first time sitting up unsupported, first time crawling, the momentous first steps, first words. But with each one comes the need to let go just a little bit more.
I remember the mom who told me about her daughter’s latest accomplishment, her voice filled with pride, fear, and apprehension. “Yesterday, she rolled all the way across the living room,” she said, “and I couldn’t see her behind the couch. Last week, I could put her down anywhere and she would still be there when I came back.”
Last year, we saw our eldest child, Liam, off to kindergarten, and after some initial worries we all adjusted to his newfound independence. Trust me, I’m thrilled that he can now zip up his own coat, but it does remind me how quickly he is growing up, and that carries a twinge of sadness with it.
I know from friends that the “letting go” stakes just get steeper each year. “Just wait until they are in the ‘big kids playground’ next year in Grade One,” a mother warned me at the school drop-off, “They pick up everything from the older kids.” “Just wait until they’re teenagers,” another friend cautioned me, “then you have to be watching more closely, even as they push you away.”
As our children grow beyond the inner circle of family and close friends, and begin to make friends of their own, we need to trust them to make wise choices. We want to protect them from all of life’s bumps and bruises, and from their own mistakes, but the truth is that they need to grow away from us in order to strengthen their own confidence.
One of my close friends, Mary, has recently re-negotiated freedoms with her daughter, Isabelle, who has just entered high school, has a steady boyfriend, and wants to be out more with friends. Coupled with the increased freedom, Isabelle now has additional responsibilities, including packing her own lunch, doing her laundry, and managing her time to get to school on time (a last-minute car ride from mom now costs her a dollar). And while Mary still has to hold back from asking about homework that needs to be completed, letting go of micromanaging Isabelle has helped to create a smoother relationship.
The heartache really comes when the wings of flight take our children out of our nest! My sister, Leigh, and three close colleagues have all sent children off to university this fall. For weeks before her daughter left, Leigh teared up whenever she saw parents holding their babies and toddlers as the memories of Kaitlyn’s early years rushed back to her.
On our walk last night, Leigh shared with me how delighted she was at receiving a call from Kaitlyn as her volleyball team passed through town while returning from a tournament in Montreal. Leigh was able to meet up with Kaitlyn briefly, and her daughter flew into her arms, both of them happy for the embrace and a few minutes together.
I guess that is what happens when you’ve done a good job as a parent at both the roots and the wings part of raising children. They grow, become adults, and occasionally fly back to you, sharing with you all the things they are learning and contributing to the world.
For now, I’ll take comfort in continuing to read my boys their bedtime stories!