There is no exact time or place when they begin to leave you. We like to have these symbolic moments that we can point to and say, “Here. Now. This is when it starts. This is when it finishes. This is when they leave.” But the truth is, our children are leaving us from the moment they arrive in our world–bit by bit, moment by moment, they grow, and change, and learn, and all of it is part and parcel of the leaving. But we focus on those symbolic moments–their first time with a sitter, the first day of kindergarten, the first slumber party, and sleepaway camp, and solo drive. It makes the ongoing leaving bearable, puts all the anxiety and pride and sorrow into discreet events, specific moments, when we can let that strange cocktail of emotions boil over, when we can admit, that yes, they are leaving us.
And in the next week, I will encounter two of those moments with my firstborn–the beautiful, tender, talented soul that I have had the honor of shepherding for eighteen precious years.
There aren’t words that can adequately describe what a parent goes through when they watch their child head out that door, knowing that this time it will be longer before they return, and they will come back older, wiser, different. The urge to hold them close, coupled with the knowledge that you must let them go is almost too much to bear some days. But day after day, month after month, year after year, you do it. You let go, and they leave, until one day you realize that they are gone. Because while they will always be your child, they cease to be children, and that is a whisper in time you never get back.
As my daughter hovers on that edge between being my child but no longer a child, I find myself bouncing between frustration and pride and utter terror. There are days when I don’t think she’ll ever be able to keep track of her things or prepare herself food, mixed with days when she tells me she is graduating in the top five percent of her high school class, capped with notes about her trip to Europe with only a friend–no adults, no supervision, no me. She still can not put air in her car tires, but she knows far more about World War II than I ever will, and a month from now she will have visited entire countries I have never seen. She is leaving me. I am letting her go.
And there is really no way to prepare for this. Being a mother was the sum total of my dreams for much of my twenties, it was the sum total of my days for most of my thirties, and only in my forties did I begin to visualize a time when they would no longer be my every day. It is a relief, it is hard, it hurts like hell. And while rationally I know that this coming week, when she will graduate and get on that plane, is the culmination of eighteen years of work on my part, her father’s, and hers, some stupid, irrational part of me feels like it’s all happening at once, in a flash, a blinding moment that frankly may leave me reeling for a while.
But like my mother when I got in a car to drive across a state line for college, and generations of other mothers who have waved their children off to other states, other countries, wars, schools, marriages, and jobs, I will say goodbye with a smile on my face, and I will remind myself that this isn’t one moment, this is eighteen years of lectures and lessons, trial and error, successes, achievements, and growth. I will keep my fears (mostly) to myself, and I will tell her that she is amazing, and amazing things await her–out there, beyond me. And then I will wait–for the next time she walks through that door, a little older, a little wiser, no longer a child, but always mine.