My dear, dear friend Kim is a few years ahead of me in the parenting role – She’s been through the sending your kid to college transition of life, and her words were so beautiful and clear, I’m offering them here for every parent letting go just a wee bit more, whether it’s the first day of daycare, preschool, middle school, high school, marriage, or moving across the country:
Watching my stepdaughter care for her new baby, I’m taken back to the all- consuming, protective love of new parents. She cried when her baby was playfully dunked in the pool during her first swimming lesson. It’s the kind of love where you give your infant swimming lessons.
This little girl’s been treasured since we new she was coming. And now that she is here, her parents do all of the gazing, adoring, worrying, and protecting of every new parent.
I’m in a different phase now, that of launching grown children in the world. And I think about the balance of Parent as Protector. My young adult children require much less protecting, but it’s still hard to let go.
I remember that defenseless newborn in my arms. I remember sitting in the car crying to my husband after our first-born had his initial immunizations. I babbled on about my inability to keep him from hurting. Looking back, the scene seems comical (and probably hormone influenced). But then, the feelings were intense; love and protection fused together in those early days.
And as my children grew, love as protection became more blurred. They didn’t overlap so neatly. When does love mean protect, and when does it mean trust? I could find no formula in the parenting manual, so I learned by trial and error, instinct, and conversations with friends. Pulling back on protection demanded a gradual release, with lots of stumbling, second-guessing, and re-negotiating terms.
But it wasn’t and isn’t easy to define those terms, especially when my kids still often look like they could use some protecting. Just this year, I watched one son select his college because it was near a Chipotle. OK, that wasn’t the only reason, but honestly, I think it was the factor that tipped the decision. Then I read the text from his brother telling me that he thought he would take himself swimming with sharks while on a trip to South Africa. How much do I say to each of my young adult sons? Do I trust or protect?
They both went. And survived. And I’m sure grew up some because their choices. But other times I’ve had to watch them get really hurt. When my oldest son went through a difficult break up, I watched him shut down and literally shrink. He lost weight, his voice grew quieter, he pulled back from friends and family. And though I tried, there was really nothing I could do. It was his time to do some more growing, to learn some hard lessons, to build resilience. But it was my time too. At 48, I’m learning humbling lessons about how hard it can be to let go, and to separate protection from love.
I have compassion now for the younger me when I remember that overwhelming need to protect our new babies. And I have compassion for myself because it’s so hard to overcome that protective instinct as they grow. But we must struggle, because otherwise our children won’t be ready to launch and be independent, and cope with life.
But it all starts from such a beautiful place. There is a purity in my step daughter’s love for her daughter that is so right and sweet. I could no more speak to her about pulling back and letting Piper struggle and develop resilience than I could convince her to move to the moon. It’s one of the many paradoxes of parenting, this balance between holding tight and letting go. She will and can only figure it out as she goes. As do I.