New Beginnings and Letting Go

books-in-the-grassEach year as school begins, a flood of emotions assails me. Melancholy brews, like a low-grade fever, for weeks before September is upon us, matched by elation over the new chapters upon which my children are embarking.

Why the melancholy? Parenting, I’ve learned, is a series of “letting goes,” each of which tortures me in small and big ways. When your children are babies, no one mentions that each milestone is, in essence, an end as well as a beginning. As your one-year old toddles toward you, arms outstretched, and collapses into the security of your embrace, you simply don’t project your mind forward to the moment when he will be walking away from you, looking for a measure of independence so crucial to his growth.

Days pass, then weeks and months and years, and you hardly notice how tall your daughter is until she is standing barefoot in her bedroom, toothbrush dangling out of her mouth, and she seems a giant all at once. Each season you pack up their clothes to make room for new ones and note that the soft footy pajamas they wore night after night now look tiny. One summer night your baby sleeps through till morning without calling out for you once. You donate playthings that lay abandoned behind the couch because your children have moved on to big kid toys.

A tooth is lost, a fairy visits, boo-boos are mended, hair is gently brushed, and foreheads are kissed before everyone is tucked in on another night in a seemingly endless string of moments together. And then a significant “letting go” arrives – a first day of kindergarten, your youngest growing out of babyhood – and you pull in your breath, overwhelmed by a sense of being in a time warp. How can it be that the very child you cuddled every night at bedtime, the one who wouldn’t leave your side at story time in the library, who clung to you desperately as you tried to fill your cart with groceries, today is off and in the world without you?

Elizabeth Stone once said becoming a parent is “to decide to forever have your heart go walking around outside your body.” When your children, those little extensions of yourself who, nonetheless, pulse with an energy all their own, face the world without you, you become physically and emotionally unsettled for a spell. With all of the challenges of parenting, I genuinely enjoy having my children around me. During the summer, I can live under the illusion that they will never go away. Though hectic at times, summers present a series of long, dreamy days when we can just be. Nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing in particular to do. Pajama days spent in the happy exercise of fort building. Meandering walks in nature. Time to watch a line of ants march or a fuzzy caterpillar mosey across our path. A time of wonder and enchantment, laziness and activity both. Summer days allow for discovery as we shed all inhibitions and commune with the animals, fauna and foliage in our little piece of the world. Home takes on a new meaning. No longer a place to land after a long day at school, home is the place we settle into, deeply and purposefully. We wander along with our children and simultaneously wonder at them. They are fascinatingly spectacular, aren’t they, with their innate curiosity and impulsive desire to know everything about the world around them?

And then September comes, sweeping away August with its cool breezes. Streets fill with yellow school buses. Children, laden down with brightly hued backpacks, dot the sidewalks. Beaches empty. Parks are still. And I am reminded again that my children are growing up and away. I mentally begin to prepare myself for another letting go, knowing deep inside that I am meant to give my children roots and wings.

My children are mine, and yet they are not, and I must find a place to dwell in those contradictory truths. I silently chant the words of Khalil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

School brings an incessant hum to our days that both exhausts and energizes us. It propels us forward, leaving scarce time to reflect on those “letting goes,” and perhaps that is how it should be. Our children learn. They thrive. They begin to transform into who they are meant to be. How wondrous it is to watch. I rejoice truly in each new adventure. And yet … there is a persistent tug on my heart that won’t relent, even as I become more accustomed to September farewells. These incremental “letting goes” lead, pass by pass, to ever bigger ones. My children will need me less during the school days and less still as the years continue to slip by. And yes, of course I know that my children will be under my roof for another decade. No need to tell me they will still fill my heart and life once they live outside of these four walls. I know this, too. Like a mamma bird though, I will feather my nest, make it comfortable and warm and safe. Call them to it, make certain they know it will forever be theirs, help them develop their wings so they can one day fly away from it. To me, my three children will always be the babies I marveled at late into the night. Toni Morrison, your words have taken up residence in my heart. I understand, finally.

Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother.
A child is a child.
They get bigger, older, but grown?
What’s that supposed to mean?
In my heart it don’t mean a thing.
– Beloved