This week, as I find myself speaking with parents that are sending their kids off to college, I hear a jumble of feelings. Joy, excitement, parental pride intertwined with grief and sadness, to name a few. I’m reminded of how the theme of letting go recurs throughout parenthood.
From the time our children learn to walk, our job is to help them without hovering, and that balancing act continues as we send them off to college. How much contact and support is the right amount?
I heard a quote that sums it up:
A wise woman once said to me that there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these she said is roots, the other, wings.
– Hodding Carter
I thought this would be an especially good time to share one of my very favorite blog posts from one of my very favorite writers on the planet, Juliette Fay. If you haven’t read her novels yet, you’re in for a treat. She’s amazing. I hope you enjoy her story of sending her first child off to college.
Letting Her Go: A Daughter Leaves the Nest
In the week after my first child, a daughter, was born, my hormones took me on one heck of a thrill ride. Up, down, exuberant, weeping, weirdly angry with my husband for not understanding. And who could blame him? I didn’t understand it myself. Yet every feeling was so deeply real and rational in the moment, it seemed he should be right there with me. Thank God he wasn’t.
I remember with crystal clarity staring at this tiny bundle of soft vulnerability, and realizing at full volume what I had taken on. Not just the care and feeding of another human being, for which I was fully prepared—I’m an oldest child, had babysat my way through high school and worked with kids for a large portion of my career. I’d had thirty years of preparation.
What I hadn’t figured on was this: I had willingly agreed to a lifetime of desperation.
Desperate love of a kind I’d never known. Desperate worry. And a thought blinked across my hormone-addled, sleep-starved brain like an LED warning sign over the highway: THIS WILL NEVER END.
Before she was born, I had considered parenthood from my own daughterly perspective. I grew up and moved away and my parents stopped taking care of me. Their job wound down to check-ins when I went to college, and ended completely when I graduated and moved across the country. They have their own lives; they don’t “parent” anymore.
Well sort of. But not really. Like muscle memory, the instinct never quite goes away. I figured that out quite abruptly in a large urban maternity ward, gazing starry-eyed at my newborn girl. That’s when I understood with anvil-dropping certainty that no matter what happens to either of us, I would belong to this child for all eternity.
Which means an eternity of parental desperation. I would love and worry about someone who’s bound to leave me. Forever. Because that’s how real love works: it permanently alters the soul.
One of the stranger thoughts I had (remember those hormones) went something like: “Ohmygod (sniff, weep), I’ll be ninety, and she’ll be sixty and I’ll be worried about her retirement package (sob, sob).” At every crossroads in her life, big or small, I would be holding my breath and praying for good results.
Eighteen years later, I’m even more certain it’s true. Because this is when she leaves.
She’s chosen a path for herself—yes, with guidance from us, but not that much. In truth, we only nudged her away from places we thought would be a bad fit, toward places that would provide fertile soil for her her-ness.
And while I feel completely confident in her ability to make her way in the world without our daily presence, I don’t feel nearly as confident in myself. Me and my altered soul aren’t so sure about it. My desperation meter is inching into the red zone.
I recently watched a movie in which a young woman was deciding who would walk her down the aisle at her impending wedding—who would “give her away.”
Years ago, as I planned my own nuptials, people would occasionally ask if my father would be “giving me away.” My reply was generally along the lines that both my parents would be walking me down the aisle, but I would be giving myself. I wasn’t theirs to give.
I still feel that’s a true statement. No one can give your heart but you.
However, I now realize my parents, who held my hands and cried all the way to the altar, weren’t really capable of handing me over, anyway. They love me—desperately—and so I am engraved upon them in ways that they, and I, have no control over. They’re not the them they used to be before I came along. I get it now. Boy, do I ever.
By the way, at the end of that aisle, I saw my beloved soon-to-be husband, dropped my parents’ hands and went to him without so much as a backward glance or a “thanks for the ride.” When I saw the wedding video a couple of days later I felt kind of bad about it. My guilt has grown over the years, as my own “letting go” time draws near.
If we’re any good at it at all, we parents are, day by day, hug by hug, door-slamming fight by door-slamming fight, supposed to be working our way out of a job. The point is for them to go off and find their own deep and desperate loves.
And I take some secret pride in how excited I am for her to leave the confines of this small, sweet town, and in the fact that she has no idea how often I bite back sad, selfish tears at the very thought of it. That’s my girl. Her future is bright.
And so I am letting her go.
But let us be clear: I will never, ever give her away.