And just like that, she’s gone.
I stood at the door as she walked away from the house, roller bag trailing behind her. It’s such an odd thing, the work it takes to let go of someone dear to you. She had been home for a month, the break before first and second semester. While she was home, I had some insight into her everyday routines. But now, she is gone, and it saddens me that there is so much of her life I am no longer involved in, major moments that I have no knowledge of.
There are stories she will share with her friends, but never with me. There are laughs that fill the room, truths shared with the person she loves, that are not meant for me. There was a time when her heart literally beat inside my body, and ever since then, we’ve been involved in the work of moving away from each other, one life experience at a time. And now as she tests out adulthood, part of that journey involves the frustrating truth that I can’t know everything about my child's life, nor am I meant to.
On New Year’s Eve, we let her have a party at the house with her friends. She begged me, “Please, under no circumstance, come downstairs. I’ll be so embarrassed if you do.” Embarrassed why? How? What was going on that she didn’t want me to see? My mind went to dark places, but then I realized the reality was likely much less nefarious: She wanted to keep this part of her life – her friends, her social self– separate from me. Because that world is not meant for me. I stayed upstairs, and at midnight she and some friends surprised us by coming into our room to say, "Happy New Year." I respected her boundaries, and as a result, she gave me a glimpse into her world, if only for a moment, and definitely on her terms.
Years ago while at my son’s baseball game, I overheard a mother telling a story about how she bribed her son to not go away to college by buying him a car. “I just couldn’t handle the idea of him leaving. I need him with me!” I understand the feeling, but shake my head at the resolution. Our kids are not ours to keep. We are gifted them for a little while, and then, if we do it right, their orbit expands away from us.
When I was 22 years old, my life had hit a crossroads. My boyfriend had recently gotten a job in Michigan. I knew that I wanted to follow him there and start our lives together. Yet I was so conflicted because I thought my moving would be too hard on my parents. How could they go on without me? My sister was in college. They’d be all alone. I felt like I was abandoning them.
Eventually I mustered the courage to tell them that I wanted to move. I knew they would support me, but expected it to be a tear-filled, and for me, guilt-provoking, conversation. It was the opposite. “You raise your children not to keep them, but to let them go,” my mother said. It was a shocking moment of clarity, an instant where I realized that my growing up had little to do with them letting me go and everything to do with my having the courage to move forward.
I have employed that philosophy with my daughter. I did not raise her to keep her, and every step she takes away from me is one she takes towards learning who her adult self is. And I see that I’m not the only one doing the work here.
The night before she left, she cried as she told me and my husband how much she will miss us. The distance has given her a greater appreciation for her parents, people who still frustrate her with their rules but whom she sees as a reliable source of much-needed emotional support. She cried; I held her. “It’s so hard being the one who has to leave,” I told her. “But the place you are going is exactly where you are meant to be.”
Like my mom did when, with a simple sentence, she revealed to me the agency I had over my own future, I try to use the right words to give my daughter the strength to grow. And yet… watching her walk away is fraught with such a cavalry of emotions. I am sad, because I will miss her. I am proud, because leaving takes courage. I am resolute because I need to stay strong in the face of so many unknowns: Will she be safe? Will she stop needing me? How will I manage that? And I am at peace, because despite my fears I know that this evolution of our relationship is exactly as it is meant to be.
The night before she left, I went to bed in complete contentment: Both of my kids were in their own bedrooms, safe and sound. On the night she left, my final thought as I drifted off to sleep was of her being nearly 200 miles away. There will be times she is out doing things I know nothing of, taking risks that I might object to, and likely learning tough life lessons along the way. Odds are, I’ll know nothing about any of it. All I can hope is that everything we have put into her will inform her choices in life and encourage her to make the right ones.
But for now I’ll think of her arriving back to her dorm room, excitedly reuniting with her friends and preparing for her first day of classes. She asked me to call her more often. I know there will be many difficult calls coming, where she is lonely, sad, stressed, or not feeling well. And I will only be a voice on the line. I can’t swoop in and solve things the way I used to. But that too is part of the journey of growing up: your problems become your own to solve, your decisions yours to live with. She is creating a life that is uniquely her own.
And that is why I just stand at the door, watching as she walks away, not crying, not wishing in my heart that she could stay. But silently, letting her go.