Parenting Stories: Lessons in Letting Go

hires“We mothers are learning to mark our mothering success by our daughters’ lengthening flight.” –Letty Cottin Pogrebin This Mother’s Day solidly marks a change that has been slowly coming to my mothering world.

My oldest daughter, KK, will be in San Francisco with her Girl Scout Troop that weekend and she will return to the nest late Mother’s Day. I’m one of those moms that are always sneaking off for some solitude on this national holiday. But I have a feeling I will hold on pretty tightly to my younger daughter when she comes to my bedroom for her morning snuggle, and I’ll shed a few tears as I greet my older girl at the airport. With KK, I’m firmly in the learning-how-to-let-go phase of parenting.

Yes, yes, parenting is always about this, but there is a clear delineation happening at our house right now. I had an easy time with letting my girls walk atop the backyard’s cement wall, and I secretly adore watching them sit on the roof of their tree house.

But the moment at school when KK’s friend was clearly telling her that her mom was walking by, and my girl was clearly ignoring me? That stung.

When I told KK I was quitting as co-leader of her Girl Scout Troop as it became clear she would be a more grown-up version of herself without me there, she let a small, happy “OK!” burst from her being and then she smiled. She cares too much what I think; after the smile she asked why I was quitting and wanted to make sure I was OK with it.

The irony is that I stayed leading her troop for so long because I didn’t know who would replace me, and I knew KK loved Girl Scouts. Um, no, the troop is stronger than ever. And the Girl Scout leader called me this fall to tell me how KK is stepping up, becoming more helpful and independent and willing to try difficult tasks without me to cry to when things are not going right.

I recall years ago that another Girl Scout leader told me she doesn’t lead her daughter’s troop, choosing to lead another troop. I thought, "How mean! That is unbelievable!" Now I agree with her, though I know that it was impossible to see the journey before me all those years ago. This new dance between my oldest girl and me is such an emotional stretch, and a coupling with rules that change all the time. The hardest moments have been ones KK may never know about. There’s the day her teacher called about an event that is only my daughter’s to share with the world.

Should I talk to her, I asked? “No,” said her teacher, “This is her mistake and she wants to handle it herself. I’ll let you know how things unfold.” During that time I spent a sleepless night wishing I could soothe my girl and help her chart new territory in her life, but I kept my words to myself. I had noticed she was having a hard time during the preceding few weeks. And I had been practicing our new dance steps. When KK is struggling or sad, she doesn’t want to tell me about it, she just wants me to be with her, next to her, which usually means reading our separate books.

When I asked a parent with adult children about whether I should push to talk with KK about the school problem, she seconded the teacher’s advice, telling me my daughter was seeking her independence and trying to handle her difficulties herself. I did what I could in other ways. We went on a few walks and joked about the self-help books I have bought her. We discussed how my girl doesn’t like to discuss her feelings, but how doing so is a good idea.

If she doesn’t want to talk to me, I tell her, can she find a friend she trusts? At the very least, can she write it down? My girl is a writer, too, and I know this saved me so often when I was her age. She tells me she always wants to make people laugh and I am so grateful for this small bit of truth she offers to me.

But those who advised me were right. The letting go has begun for me, and KK is moving forward pretty strongly. She dealt with this issue on her own and her teacher told me that KK actually became a more outgoing version of herself within the next few weeks. I wonder if when she is 42 we will talk about that which can’t be named right now.

My own mother divulged a secret like this to me recently. She said when she and my dad dropped me off in Chicago for a semester of college, my dad argued with her for hours, telling my mom they should put me back in their car and take me home. My mom held her ground, telling my dad that although my apartment was terrifying and the city was scary, they couldn’t take me home, that I wasn’t theirs to take home this time. I can hardly believe this tale. I’ve always thought of my mom as a very overprotective, suburban mom. I was wrong. She slowly parceled me out into the world until I was ready to let go.

On this Mother’s Day I’m thankful for my own mother's leadership in the letting-go-of-your-most-precious-cargo lesson. And I’ll be running through the airport corridor to squeeze my oldest girl after her return flight from her solo San Francisco trip.

nancy-altonWriter, editor, and writing coach Nancy Schatz Alton is finishing the last draft of a memoir. She is co-author of two holistic health care guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. When not navigating parenthood, she uses her brain power to write, edit, and fact-check articles for websites and magazines. She lives in Ballard with her husband and two elementary-age daughters. Find her blog at Within the Words.

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