Last week, my oldest son packed up his soccer ball, his smelly socks and his brand new computer and left home for college. The 18 years it took us to get here have rocketed past. But as surprised as I am to find myself sending my firstborn away, watching him take strides toward independence is nothing new. I embraced those sweet moments where he took his first steps, said his first words and made his first trip to school on the kindergarten bus. I had no idea what was coming. I wouldn’t understand the challenge of putting real space between my children and myself until the day my son learned to ride a bike.
He was not an eager cyclist, so I’d done my fair share of running alongside him, holding the back of his seat while he screamed “Don’t let go!” with terrified hysteria. It became such an issue, I turned the chore over to my sister while we vacationed at the beach one week. She’d taught three of her own kids already and promised her expertise, combined with the flat coastal terrain, would bring results. She was right, but my son remained an apprehensive rider.
A week later, I discovered he’d regressed when I took him out riding in our neighborhood. After the obligatory tears, a lot of running alongside him and an unfortunate return to the mantra “Don’t let go!” he finally found his mojo. As he rode in careful circles around me on the cul de sac exclaiming, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” I stood with my hands on my hips huffing for air. Sweat trickled down the small of my back. Good thing you’ve got it, I thought, because I didn’t know how much more I had in me. Still, I was proud to see him overcoming his fear.
The next day, we went out again. He gripped his handlebars and furrowed his brow as we made our way to the cul de sac. After 30 minutes of circling, he wanted to set out in our neighborhood, and I agreed, happy to see him taking a risk. But somehow, we ended up on a side street with a sizable downhill. “Are you sure you want to go this way?” I asked as I trotted next to him.
“Mom! I got it!” he said with a hint of annoyance. And with that, he crested the top of the hill and started down. I blinked and he was out of my reach. I covered the great “O” of my mouth and watched as he coasted away, his body crouched over the handlebars, his little head made large by the blue helmet perched upon it, his red two-wheeler whizzing through dapples of sunlight on the shaded street.
The scene would have been idyllic if the front wheel hadn’t started to wobble. I took a step forward, then broke into a run as the bike went into full tremor mode. But there was no chance of catching up, so I stopped, clutched my fists to my chest and held my breath.
And that’s when it hit me. This is parenting. Rooted to the top of that hill, I understood this was what the next decade would be about: watching my children grow smaller in the distance. And trusting–in grace? In my kids? In my teaching? Perhaps in all of those things. So I watched him go, accepting my helplessness and fear because I had to and trusting my son to control the bike because he had to.
When he reached the bottom, he stopped in a patch of sun, turned and raised his fist in the air. I clapped and smiled, grateful he was far enough away not to see me exhale hard with relief. Of course, I had no sooner relaxed than he wanted to do it again and again. But that’s when I learned the second lesson. Letting go is terrifying at first, but give yourself a little time, and you get used to it.
Since then, there have been plenty of other scary steps toward independence: letting him stay home alone, walk alone to the pool across a four-lane road, ride in cars with teen friends and drive. I want to say I’ve gotten better at the letting go, but life keeps upping the stakes.
On the cusp of his high school graduation last spring, I could feel myself preparing. When he grabbed the lunch his father made and walked out the door for school in the final week, I suddenly saw him as too old for that. Instead, I imagined him eating with friends in his college dining hall or cooking Ramen noodles in his dorm—Dad’s bag lunches long forgotten.
Now, that moment has arrived. After just one week away at school, the only communication I’ve received from my son is a text with the message, “College life,” and a picture of a microwavable container of macaroni and cheese. Suffice it to say, he’s not missing Dad’s ham sandwiches.
I hope college will be the ultimate solo ride for my son—one I certainly won’t be able to run along beside, not that I want to. Like that day in our cul de sac, I’m worn out from the running, but that doesn’t make his departure less emotional or less frightening. I will miss deciphering his teenage mumbling in the mornings and chatting with him over family dinners at night. I will worry about his progress in his classes and his safety at parties. But I have to trust that when his front tire wobbles, he can hold fast. When he does, I know we’ll celebrate together, him turning from his patch of sun, fist in the air. Me, cheering from my spot on the hill.