Kids Grow Up, and We Let Them

Our priests have made it safely to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, with about 15 of our teenagers—including mine.

I drove Leah to the church on Saturday morning, and waved as two vans full of kids and luggage pulled out on their way to JFK airport. I wasn't sure how I would feel about this, sending my child off to a foreign country. Turns out, it wasn't so hard. I recalled the first time I put her on a school bus that would take her to preschool. (Leah qualified for special education because of her bone disorder, and West Hartford provides bus transportation for special education students enrolled in their preschool programs.) That was hard. I felt sick, disoriented. Leah was four, Meg was an infant, Benjamin only a nagging sense that we should revisit our decision to call our family complete after the second child. I was immersed in nonstop interaction with my children, aware of their whereabouts, moods, and needs at every waking moment, waking instantly from deep sleep when even a quiet whimper emanated from one of the rooms down the hall. Putting Leah on a school bus, knowing that she would be traveling about in the world as a distinct person, without me, made me dizzy. I was less disoriented by the fact that I wouldn't be caring for her during those few hours (it was a wonderful preschool) than by the fact that hours of her life would take place unwitnessed by me. It was my first conscious experience of my child as a person who would lead (was already leading) a life apart from me.

I have, of course, become more accustomed to my children living their own lives, as they attend school and summer camp, learn lines and lyrics for a play without any help from me, and have long, giggly conversations, in person or via text message, with friends to which I am not privy. This separation is necessary, and often welcome for all of us. As an introvert who cherishes being alone with written rather than spoken words, the 10 or so years of parenthood during which I nearly always had one, two, or three chatty, curious children by my side were frequently draining and difficult, even as I knew their worth.

The sheer wonder of watching my children grow into themselves is no longer muffled by the weariness of constant caretaking. I waved good-bye to Leah as her van headed out of the St. James's parking lot with only a smallish lump in my throat. Mostly, I simply felt excitement, and a bit of pride, as I watched my tall, lanky girl (okay, she's only five feet, but to me, she's tall), with a summer Spanish language worksheet packet and a Bill Bryson book tucked into her carry-on bag, laughing with her friend Katja.

As I thought about why sending my firstborn off to a foreign country felt less dire than sending her across town to preschool, I dug up a blog post from when Benjamin was still a toddler. The post read, in part:

Mothers of young children hear some version of [this] wistful (envious?) observation regularly: “This is the best time, when they are little.” Older mothers remind us to enjoy it, that it goes so fast, that you will look back on this time fondly. We know they are right, that in spite of the tedium and mess and fatigue, we are privileged beyond measure to be so completely needed by, so utterly attached to and so wholeheartedly in love with—and loved by—our children. Knowing that I am privileged, I try to notice, to appreciate, to remember. Yes, the days become a blur of repetition and routine, but I try to stop and take it in—the way their toes line up like perfect pink pearls; the way Ben laughs from deep in his belly and makes a sound so un-self-conscious, so naturally buoyant, that you can’t help but laugh with him; the way Leah, always thin and petite, is losing her minimal little-girl curves and becoming all angular, complete with a bump on her nose just like mine; the way Meg methodically tucks her baby doll Rebecca under a wee pink blanket in bed each night, before asking me to pull the covers up over both of them. I notice, I appreciate, I remember as much as I can, but still time marches on. No amount of remembering—the daily effort to take note, the albums of photos, these blog posts, the telling of “I remember when you were a baby,” stories over supper—will keep them from growing into people I both know intimately and don’t recognize. If I am very, very lucky, my losses will be [unremarkable]—the loss of seeing my children hurt by other people, hurting other people, making decisions I don’t agree with, going in directions I would not choose for them. Such losses are real and painful, but take place within a relationship that is still there, still vital, still important. If I am very, very lucky, I will have years ahead in which to know these people my children will become, learn from them, forgive and be forgiven by them, and to love them with a kind of love that is different from, but rooted in, the physically demanding, breathtaking, all-knowing, consuming love I have for them today.

I don't really have a big spiritual point to make here, except maybe that letting go is a necessary part of love. God did it with Jesus, understanding that his son's nature would inevitably lead him to an agonizing death. God does it with us, allowing us the choice, every minute, of following God's lead or not, delighting in us as we grow into the people we are meant to be, forgiving us when we mess up.

For those of you not on Facebook, here are a couple of pictures that Curtis posted last night, from a walk in Santo Domingo. It was, I admit, a little disconcerting that Leah is not in any of them. It seemed, for just a moment, that my child had simply disappeared, prompting a visceral burst of anxiety. But I know she's okay. My hope for this trip is not so much that our kids will help a lot of people (though they might), but that they will be changed, as this trip draws them closer to being the people God made them to be.


DR1Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.