To My Daughter, on her 18th Birthday
I am learning to let go.
Today you turn 18, and every day I am reminded that you are more adult than child, more capable than helpless, and more motivated than ever.
You are changing, and I have to change too. This is hard stuff, the act of letting go. Releasing should be easier than gripping, yet it is so much harder.
When you were a baby, I made all your decisions: What you wore, what you ate. When you were a toddler, I started giving you the power to make choices, but only within the parameters I set. Do you want grapes or strawberries? The pink shirt or the blue? You started school and I managed your time. I scheduled playdates and signed you up for dance class. I picked you up from school and set your bedtime.
Then, the tween and teen years. I stopped buying you clothes because I found myself frozen, unable to figure out what you would actually wear. You joined after-school clubs, made friends whose mothers I never met. I faced your wrath when I asked questions like, “Who’s party is this, and will parents be there?” I tried to hold on to my power over you, even as I felt it slipping away with each eye roll.
Now you are 18 and officially an adult. You’re heading to college next month, and I understand that the tighter I try to hold onto you, the more I risk destroying the relationship we've both worked so hard to build. Most of all, I have to believe that everything we have built together – love, respect, trust – will guide you as you make your own choices and navigate your own risks.
Because here's the truth about being a grown-up: Adulthood is all about managing risk. When you were little, I’d take you to the playground and you would climb up the monkey bars. At first, I would stand behind you and hold your waist, supporting you as you learned to climb. Later I stood with my hands in the air, not touching you but there as you climbed higher and higher, ready to catch you if you fell. You would look back at me, smile, and feel more confident because I was there.
I’ve been in that position for a long time now – the supportive presence that makes a scary world seem safe. But you’re not looking back anymore for reassurance. I can’t stop you from slipping and I can’t prevent the inevitable falls. For me to parent you now as I did when you were younger would be to rob you of the growth and experiences-- and the risks-- that will truly make you an adult.
So, as I learn to let go:
I will respect your boundaries and realize that while I’ve had a front-row seat to your life to date, it’s time for me to move to the cheap seats. I won’t be able to see everything, and I won’t be at every performance. But if every once in a while, you want to move me back into the front row, just for a moment, I will consider it a great honor.
I will make peace with the reality that you are no longer my baby and no longer my little girl. Those were wonderful years, and I thank you for the gift of being your favorite person for a while, the one whose shoulder you would fall asleep on, the one who would squeal “Mommy!” at school pickup and hug me tight around my waist. I am looking forward to this new dynamic, where you are my adult daughter and I get to see a new world through your experiences.
I will try to sleep when you are still out (but this will be hard).
I'll give you space when I see you’re upset, ask what’s wrong, and get no details. I will not pry, because just as I have a private world you are not privy to, you do as well.
I’m understanding that you have a life that is revolving less around our family and more around your friends. I won't make you feel bad or guilty about that. This is for real -- after two years of spending all your time with us, you deserve the joy of being around people who get all your jokes.
In return, I only ask that you know that while I am working on letting go, there will always be a part of you that beats inside my heart. When life doesn’t go the way you planned, when other people disappoint you, when you’re sad, I will be here for you. If you just need someone to whine to, if you have a problem too big for your friends to understand, lean on me. I’ll hold onto you again, just as long as you need it. And then I’ll let you go again, because I know we will always come back to each other.