My youngest started high school this year. My little itty bitty baby (who just happens to be six inches taller than I am) is a freshman. And my oldest is a junior – making moves to get out of the nest for good. It is bananas, y’all!
This isn’t something I ever thought would actually happen. I mean, I knew it would, but when you’re carrying them in the baby years, or holding their fingers in the toddler years, or holding their hands up the stairs in the preschool years, or even just walking beside them in the elementary years, it’s theoretical. You have so much you just have to get through right now – rolling over, potty training, sentence structure, learning to tie shoes, phonics, addition and subtraction, science experiments with shaving cream – you maybe can’t even imagine moving to hands-off mode.
But it happens before you know it.
Then, you’re trailing behind them as they walk ahead to ask their own questions, to find their own way, to sort it for themselves. And that’s how it should be – ultimately, they need to maneuver through the world on their own, so they have to start sometime. They need lots of practice. And it needs to start as soon as possible.
So you become an observer. A helper. A guidepost. A consultant instead of a (micro) manager. And it’s amazing. It’s also terrifying – definitely for us and maybe a little bit for them, too.
In her book, Untangled, Lisa Damour compares being a parent to teens with being the side of a swimming pool. Our job is to be there and define the boundaries and hold the pool together. Our teens are the swimmers – out exploring the pool on their own. At times they’ll be swimming confidently and competently and won’t need us – they’ll forget we’re even there. Other times, when things are hard and they need a safe and easy space, they’ll hang on for dear life. Sometimes they’ll push off of us so hard and swim in their own direction. And we remain steady – and there – holding the pool together.
A favorite doctor of mine once compared parenting to being a protruding rock in the ocean. Waves – the kids – come crashing into you, (figuratively) battering you. Relentlessly. With their unpredictable moods and never-ending envelope-pushing. And you remain steady – and there.
It can be brutal and is often thankless and exhausting and hard.
This stage is extraordinary.
To witness in real time this little creature you taught to use a spoon sort things out – big things – scary things. You marvel at what they’ve picked up and how they’ve made sense of it. All of these lessons we’ve been overtly and covertly teaching them – they’ve learned them! Some better than others, to be sure, but they’re figuring it out. And walking ahead.
Our job now is to stay back. Close enough so we can get to them if they need us, but back far enough so we don’t interfere. Letting go is hard – it’s so hard. That’s why we do it bit by bit – but it’s how you end up with a full-fledged adult who goes out productively into the world and doesn’t live in your basement gaming their twenties and thirties away.
They’re going to make mistakes and they have to make them. That’s how they learn. And we have to let them learn the hard lessons (as long as they’re safe). It goes against everything we’ve spent our whole lives doing, but it’s the process of them learning to keep themselves safe.
Like I said before, it can be brutal and is often thankless and exhausting and hard. And wondrous. But in the end, if the stars align, we have actual adults who contribute to the world. And we helped do that.
Kate Bowler, who is a writer and professor at the Duke University Divinity School, was diagnosed in 2015 with stage IV cancer when she was 35 years old. Understandably, that diagnosis changed her perspective on life. In a recent Instagram post, she saw her young son off to his first day of school – a milestone she wasn’t sure she would ever see. She finished the post with, “God, bless the weight of all this love. Thank you for letting me carry it.”
There are times in the midst of all this change when the privilege of parenthood does not at all feel like a blessing. Like, not. at. all. Sometimes the love of parenthood can feel heavy and clunky – I think that’s just because we understand the enormous responsibility we have raising these kids. But as we inch our respective ways forward and things stabilize for a minute (before they change again), we see the flashes of brilliance in that shifting of responsibility. It’s electrifying. Truly wondrous.
God, bless the weight of all this love. Thank you for letting me carry it.