The last first day of childhood school is upon us. Although, I say childhood loosely, because anyone who has walked the halls of a high school recently is well aware these are not little people strolling in straight lines making the rabbit ear “SH!” symbol with their fingers. But still, it’s a structured and monitored school, with rules, a principal, detentions, bells and hall passes. It is nowhere near the freedom he will experience at college. Am I ready for his last year of school? For the last school dance, the last school sports team, last athletic banquet, senior breakfast, awards ceremonies and finally a real cap and gown? Is he?
I am actually starting to believe he is, both mentally and physically, and it’s amazing and frightening all at once. At this point, I believe we have traversed the worst that puberty has to offer. Awkwardness has been replaced by a young man who is not afraid of public speaking, who doesn’t need to be reminded to shower and shave, and is exercising a confident independence I never saw coming. This summer he will even have his first paying job. Massive swinging mood changes have become few and far between, and giggling about women’s body parts has been replaced with intelligent discussions about whether this country is ready for a woman president or not. So it’s no surprise that the time has now come for me to start the letting-go process, little by little, so that 12 months from now when he dons his high school cap and gown and walks across the stage, I don’t melt into thousands of little sobbing pieces. Gulp.
Of all the epically hard parenting stages and phases we go through, from teething, to sleepless nights, to toddler tantrums, to tween and teen angst, none of them, and I mean none of them, are going to be as hard as the letting-go stage is suiting up to be. Letting go. Just saying it aloud is making me shiver. Some days I look right through the deep voice and scruffy chin and still see a little boy pushing Thomas the Train along a track. Do I really have to send him out into the big, bad world? Yes. Indeed I do. My mom did, leaving me at college at the age of 17. There were no cell phones, no email, no texting. My dorm only had one payphone down at the end of the hall. Remember dialing home collect? I do. How she left me there on the dorm front steps and drove away I cannot even comprehend. But she did, and in a year, I will too.
My generation of parents, and those a few years younger than me, drank the helicopter parenting Kool-Aid. As soon as our babies left the womb, we grabbed on tight and haven’t let go since. We are the original attachment-parenting parents. We wore our babies in plain navy Baby Bjorns before it was cool, before slings, wraps and backpacks of every size, shape and color hit the market and baby-wearing became the norm. We practiced extended breastfeeding, co-slept, were the first to demand organic baby food, ushered in the first generation of 6-month-olds watching Baby Einstein.
We did cooperative pre-schooling, walked our 5-year-old all the way to the classroom door and then met them promptly at dismissal at the same door. We haven’t missed a single game, match, lesson, play, recital or school program yet. We’ve rocked, snuggled, coddled, hovered and patrolled them vigilantly. They’ve probably been the most buckled, secured, guarded and overprotected kids in all of history. It was as if our parental mandate was to protect, encourage, push and be there, always. And now, in a little more than a year, I’m supposed to just drop him off on the steps of the dorm and drive away? Deep breath. Yes, that is exactly what I need to do. And I need to do it earnestly, faithfully and gracefully.
Every spring for the past few years, a mama dove has built her nest somewhere on my front porch. I watch her and her mate, day in and day out, rain or shine, taking shifts to watch over their brood. Instinct, will, faith and strength keep her there sitting guard over her young. She never wavers, never flinches, fervently guards them, and above all, she never, ever leaves them alone. Until one day, she just does. She leaves them to go out and gather food to feed them, but is only gone a few minutes. But then she leaves for longer. And even longer. Hours and hours pass. Then an entire day. The hatchlings hesitate. They crane their necks out over the nest, gazing down and out into the unknown. I imagine them to be thinking, “Is she coming back? Can we just go now? Are we ready? Will we fly?”
They will. She knows they will. Instinct, will, faith and strength are there to remind her they will.
I go out a few days later to check the nest, and find that it’s empty. They have indeed grown and flown out into the world. Mama bird has earnestly, faithfully and gracefully let them go.
In just over a year from now, I can only hope, pray and aspire to possess as much courage as that mother dove, as I leave my first little hatchling on the front steps of the dorm. It will take small, measured moments of letting go of him during his senior year, which I pray will boost my confidence, build up my faith and remind me that pushing him out of the nest doesn’t mean I have to be there to fly next to him. It just means I have done enough that he can now fly on his own, and truly, that is a great thing. And for that, this mama bird should be beaming with pride, not defeated by sadness. And she will. I will. Earnestly, faithfully and gracefully, I will.