When our daughter was a newborn, I held her in my arms in the wee hours of the morning and felt a sudden jolt of fear and wonder. When I tried to describe it to my husband the next day, I said, “In a single instant, I was bowled over by the immense potential wrapped up this tiny little person.” The responsibility of nurturing that potential — of feeding this human being’s body, mind, and spirit for the foreseeable future — overwhelmed me.
Now that same daughter is approaching her 17th birthday, and I again find myself struck by fear and wonder as she prepares to make her way in the world.
I didn’t expect to spend so much of my parenting years alternating between delight, awe, and terror. In my memories of motherhood so far, moments of indescribable joy mix with moments of utter despair. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
Kids growing up is the best and worst thing.
I believe this is true even when things go well. My eldest has her own unique struggles, but we’ve managed to avoid a lot of the terrible teen troubles many parents talk about. All in all, parenting a teen so far has been pretty awesome.
But watching your kids grow up hurts. The empathy you feel as your children try to figure out their life and learn hard lessons in the process — that alone is enough. But the questioning whether or not you’ve done enough, taught enough, supported enough, pushed enough — that adds another dimension to it. The natural separation as they become more independent, the conflict you feel between relief and sadness that they don’t need you as much, the unexpected realization that this process is harder on this side than it was on the other side — all of those things add up to a unique brand of heartache.
At the same time, watching your child approaching full bloom is so beautiful it takes your breath away. Nothing can match the pride of seeing the years of work you poured into your child starting to bear real fruit. When the skills and character qualities you’ve hoped to foster shine through with glaring clarity, you exhale a little, knowing that you didn’t completely screw this up.
When you witness your child making discoveries about themselves and the world, when you literally watch them becoming an adult before your eyes, your heart all but bursts with joy and gratitude.
But the truth is that a bursting heart feels an awful lot like a breaking one. The joy and the pain both pummel you harder than you expect them to. You think by now you should be used to this kind of emotional upheaval as your kids grow and change, but it never gets easier. There’s nothing greater than watching your child walk toward their wide-open future, and nothing worse than watching them walk away from you.
Occasionally, I have felt an odd impulse to be angry at my children for growing up, as if they’re doing it on purpose, as if they could stop it if they wanted to. It doesn’t make sense, but neither do many things about parenting. At other times, I’ve wished I could speed up the whole process, to fast-forward through whatever annoying age or stage my kids were going through.
And still other times, I’ve wanted to freeze time, to capture the perfection of a toothy giggle or a cozy morning snuggle for all eternity. Fruitless feelings, of course, but such is parenthood. So many things are out of our control, which is both liberating and terrifying.
And now we’re getting ready to help our oldest child set sail. I find myself desperately trying to hold on to time, but I can already feel it slipping away along with my daughter. And I want her to go, of course — that’s been the plan all along.
I want her to grow up, but at the same time, I don’t.
I want her to be independent and thrive on her own, but I don’t want to let her go.
I want to sit back and watch her embark on her life, but I don’t want to stand helpless on the shore, not knowing if she’s really ready.
Or perhaps I just feel helpless, not knowing if I’m really ready. As I look out over the ocean she’ll be navigating, I’m filled with fear and wonder at its enormity. In its waters, I see beauty and mystery, storms and shipwrecks, uncharted waters and buried treasure. I know our daughter will encounter things we could never have anticipated, for better and for worse. All we can do is hope we’ve prepared her for whatever comes her way, trust her to chart her course wisely, and pray for peaceful seas.
Kids growing up. It truly is the best and the worst thing.