For the past 16 years I’ve been celebrating my children’s milestones. First words. First steps. First days of school. While I’ve cheered their progress on the road to independence, sometimes the milestones are bittersweet. They’re a reminder that each step leads away from me.
Suddenly, I want to hug them tight and say, “don’t grow up so fast.”
That happened this summer when I walked Emily through security at the airport and said goodbye at the gate. You can still do that with a minor. It gave me 15 more minutes with her and I soaked up each one because I won’t get to hug Emily again until next June. She’s spending her junior year of high school studying abroad in Germany.
After our last hug, I left the concourse and fought back the tears that show up like unwanted guests at a party. It made me recall the first time I felt such a mix of happy and sad at her growing independence.
The first time it took me by surprise.
On her first day of kindergarten I was thrilled to walk Emily to class. She knew her ABC’s and could figure basic math. She longed for more stimulation than two days of preschool each week, and she was so excited her eyes crinkled almost shut as she smiled. She was ready.
I was ready too, or so I thought. I had an appointment 30 minutes after the school bell rang. I had places to go and things to do, plus a new baby and a toddler to fill the two and a half hours she’d be in school.
After taking her picture I gave her a big hug and waved goodbye, proud of my daughter and so much more collected than the moms who were dabbing tissues at their runny mascara.
Then I got in the car. The salt water erupted, a sudden surprising spring.
It happened again the first time I let her ride around the block on her bike, all by herself. I sat with my back pressed against our front door, blinking and counting. How long would it take her to pedal her pink bike the quarter mile? When I reached 100 I craned to watch the street corner, waiting for her to reappear, wobbly and smiling, her helmet strapped tight to her head.
Years later I hugged her goodbye and cheerfully watched her board a charter bus, both rows of braces sparkling in the sun as she grinned, giddy with excitement. It was her first road trip without parents as she traveled to Canada with the Spokane Area Children’s Chorus to attend a music festival.
That day, like her first day of kindergarten, my tears waited politely until I shut my car door and pulled into traffic. Then they rushed in, clouding my vision and reminding me that she was growing up and away from me, just as she should.
It’s a joy of parenting to watch your children become more independent, to need you less. In fact, I’m sometimes guilty of being the mama bird that shoves her chicks off the tree branch because I know they can fly. I know they can soar.
Emily has rarely needed that push. She’s an eternal optimist always eager to try new things and meet new people. As soon as she learned about the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange scholarship during her first month of German class, she wanted to go.
Knowing many students aren’t accepted, she worked hard to lasso her dream to the ground. She learned as much German as possible. She spent hours perfecting her application essays.
To support her in her goal, we began peppering conversations with the phrase, “when Emily is in Germany.” It was a vain attempt to prepare emotionally. This spring, after celebrating her acceptance, we tried to ignore the surprising number of parents who told us they’d never let their 16-year-old daughter go so far away, for so long.
This baffled me. How could we hold her back? Like that first day of kindergarten or that bike ride around the block, we knew she was ready. Though we’ve lost our front-row seat to watching her grow and mature, we’re happy Emily has this amazing opportunity to learn another language and study another culture, to make new friends and discover herself in new ways.
It’s part of parenting to cheer for your children as they reach new milestones. We’re preparing them to leave the nest for a day, for a week, for a year, and eventually, forever. After all, we want to raise brave, independent people.
But it’s still bittersweet. The milestones rip at my heart. I miss them, whether it’s the time they spend away from me at kindergarten, on a solo bike ride around the block, or during an extended stay on the other side of the world.