Yesterday, I watched my baby walk for the first time. She’d been cruising the furniture for weeks, occasionally letting go and plopping onto her diapered bottom, only to pull herself up and do it again. This time, she stood right up in the middle of the floor and took a step. Then another and another, haphazardly controlling her chubby little legs, willing them to move her across the room without assistance. She beamed as I clapped, that milestone etching its way into my memory and her subconscious.
Today, I handed her the keys to our car. She and I swapped seats, and I coached her through adjusting the mirrors before telling her to start the engine. I cracked a joke. She laughed. I knew that humor would help ease her first-time driving nerves. She looked in each mirror three times, over her shoulder twice, then slowly pulled away from the curb. She squealed softly in delight and I couldn’t help but smile, this milestone etching its way into both of our memories.
There are 15 years of milestones between yesterday and today. Fifteen years of firsts. Fifteen years of triumphs and failures, wins and losses. I’ve learned to recognize these life-shifting snippets of time, the ones where the world stands still for a split second — just long enough to snap a photo, to form a memory, to snip one of the threads connecting her to me.
I look at my baby’s long, lithe legs as they push the gas pedal, and I have to hold back the urge to yell at her. Put on the brakes! Stop the vehicle immediately! We’re only moving 10 miles per hour, but it feels too fast. How can we be here already? I’m not ready for this.
When we started this journey together, we were strangers. Strangers in love, but strangers nonetheless. Only five seconds out of my body, she lifted her head from my belly and looked me right in the eye. I remember being overwhelmed with the potential contained in her tiny self. I remember wondering in that moment who she would become, too smitten and starry-eyed to consider wondering who I would become.
We’ve gotten to know each other well since then — so well that I can anticipate her reaction to an oncoming car: “Don’t panic,” I tell her, remembering how disconcerting it felt the first time I faced a car in the other lane. “You’ll be tempted to swerve, but you can’t. You have to trust that they’re going to stay in their lane. Your job is to stay in yours.”
I notice I’m using the same tone of voice my mother used when she taught me to drive — patient, assured, trusting. It’s coming out of me automatically. I wonder if my mom felt this same internal upheaval as she told me to check my mirrors or to turn right at the next stop sign. I recall her grabbing the dashboard only once during our driving practices. Now that I’m in her seat, I’m positive her Zen-like instruction was a performance, a ruse to keep me calm and focused behind the wheel.
My daughter nods and exhales as the car passes, her shoulders relaxing a little. She trusts me to help her through this. I could win an Oscar with my cool demeanor. It’s become second nature for me to hold it together and only fall apart on the inside when it comes to milestones. Kids grow up, of course. We all know this. We signed up for it when we had them. It’s part of the deal. I just never expected it to be so painful, for this side of the car to feel so complicated.
Like me at her age, my daughter doesn’t know that this milestone hurts a little more than the thousands we’ve been through together to get here. She doesn’t understand that when I look at her adult-sized frame in the driver’s seat, I see a chubby-legged baby reaching up to be held. She has no way of knowing the thrill and horror of teaching your children the lessons they need to learn so that they can leave you.
She has so many more milestones to go before she’ll understand — graduations, jobs, a broken heart or two, marriage, her own baby’s first steps. Someday she’ll sit in the passenger seat and drown in the whole, complex truth of a mother’s love. But not now. Right now, this milestone is hers.
As she slows to a stop at a stop sign, I look at the horizon and it hits me that our journey together is nearing its end. I can see that fork in the road ahead, but we’re not there yet. So I do the only thing I can do. I swallow hard and keep talking her through the lesson. “You’re doing great. Now put your foot on the gas and accelerate.”
“Not too fast, though,” I add gently. “We’re just getting started.”