I recently took my oldest daughter to her college orientation. It was easy enough. All I had to do was show up, sit through a million or so talks by various college staff, go on a couple of tours, learn about some campus organizations and departments, and choke down blinding panic caused by the thought of letting go of my child. Nothing to it.
It’s not that I didn’t know that this time was coming. It’s that I didn’t expect it to get here so soon. And sure, everyone from the well-meaning old lady at the grocery store to my own parents told me the years would go by quickly, but I don’t think I had the brainpower to comprehend what they meant, what with the sleepless newborn nights, the toddler tantrums and the soul-sucking high school years.
The point is, deep down we’ve known this day would arrive sooner or later. In fact, over the years, my daughter and I have talked many times about how she would go off to college one day. Granted, it was mainly in the “FINE. You’ll miss me when I’m at college,” or “Well, when you’re on your own at college you won’t have to worry about an annoying mother who loves you and just wants to help” kind of way. So, really more emotional blackmail than actual talking. But still…
To make matter worse, she didn’t take the simple route for college, by which I mean going to a school in a pleasant small town within an easy two or three-hour drive that would be just close enough for me to visit, but not so close as to interfere. Instead, my kid picked a school in a major city twelve hours away. I am fairly certain that this is her way of calling my bluff on the emotional blackmail.
Anyway, as we walked around the city the night before orientation, all I could see were dark alleys that would make the perfect setting for a murder – or at least a light mugging. There were too many cars, too much noise, and an infinite number of ways to get lost. I kept picturing this child of mine, the same one who can’t find a pair of shoes in a 2’ x 4’ closet, trying to find her way to class through this concrete jungle. And let’s not even talk about her getting to class on time.
Throughout the two days that we spent in the city (I won’t bother to include the 24+ hours we spent in the car), I kept thinking, “How did this happen? Who is this child that is so willing to go so far away and take on such immense challenges?” I mean, wasn’t it just yesterday that she was too scared to jump off the dock at the river – even with a life jacket on? Now she’s jumping off into the deepest of waters and as far as I can tell, there is no life jacket in sight. How on earth is she going to make it? More importantly, how am I going to let her go?
As for my daughter, I watched her throughout the process and was amazed at her confidence. She marched up and down the city streets like she already owned them. She was excited. After all, by attending this particular school, she will be pursuing the dream she has had since she was five years old. But at the same time, there were moments when I caught her eyes going wide in that special way they do when I know she is a little bit scared. I know she is nervous. I know that she will have moments in her first few weeks, months and probably throughout her first year, when she is heartbreakingly homesick. There will be times when she will feel like she has made a mistake or feels like a failure. This knowledge makes me want to stop the entire process and lock her in her room where I know she will be safe and secure. Forget letting go. Letting go is for quitters.
It wasn’t until about halfway through the drive home (I’d exhausted my podcast supply by then and had a lot of time to think) that it dawned on me that this was all mine and her father’s fault. After all, we had been the ones standing behind her on that very same dock, encouraging her to jump. From the beginning, we had been the ones pushing her to this very moment.
When children are born, we see them as the helpless ones. But in reality, every thing they do from the moment they take their first breath is wrapped in courage. That first step, the first day of school, the first time without training wheels, the first sleep away camp and so on. They constantly step into uncharted waters and we are the ones cheering them on. We encourage them to dream big. We challenge them to try new things. We say things like “this will build character” or “it’s good to try things that scare you.” And we do this knowing that it will be ok, because we’re on the sidelines watching, ready to pick them up when they fall.
The hard work is theirs. They are the ones that have to step out into the unknown. They are the ones that have to choose to believe us when we say it will all be ok. They are the ones that have to learn that when they fall, and they will, that we will pick them up. And this kind of trust is not an easy thing to learn or accept, but if we’ve done our job right, then eventually, they will be willing to take the risks that will lead to their greatest triumphs.
All of these thoughts hit me like a tidal wave, until they finally settled into a single realization. I’ve done my job. That’s not to say I’m done being a parent. I called my own mother just the other day to help me with some things (i.e., adulting is really hard and sometimes you just want your mom). Parenting never ends. But I’ve reached at least one important milestone.
Letting go is not just about accepting that my helpless baby has become a somewhat self-sufficient quasi-adult, but it’s about accepting the fact that in her ability to leave, I have done exactly what I set out to do. I have created a woman-child that dreams big dreams. And most importantly, I have taught her to go for them.
All parents want their kids to be successful. And as far as I can tell, successful people are not the ones that live in their parents’ basement wearing a bike helmet indoors just in case they trip and fall. Truly successful people take risks. They step outside of their comfort zones (and, consequently, their parents’ comfort zones) and attempt big things. And that’s the kind of child I’ve raised. She is the one, that even if it takes some coaxing, jumps off the dock in spite of her fear.
Letting my daughter go is not just a sign of her readiness to accept new challenges, but it’s a celebration of a job well done on my part, as well. Letting her falter, and sometimes fail, is the only way to make sure that she achieves everything I’ve ever wanted for her. But as I carefully, and somewhat reluctantly, untie those strings that have bound us together for so many years, I can rest assured that she is ready. Not because she has learned everything she needs to know and not because she doesn’t need me anymore. But because she has learned to jump in spite of those things, knowing that her father and I will always be there to encourage her bravery, believe in her dreams, and pick her up when she falls.
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