Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Letting Go, Holding On

All her life, I've encouraged Twelve to be independent. Bit by bit, she's taken on more responsibility and earned more freedom. I'm the first to admit that my life gets easier with each bit, but my real goal has always been to parent myself out of a job. If I time it just right, I figure, by the time she's eighteen I'll on the road to sunny Mexico (figuratively speaking, although I am planning to have a fantastic midlife crisis involving lots of travel to warm places).

A lot of the early stuff is pretty fuzzy by now, but I remember a moment when Twelve was maybe a year old, and had just crashed to her bottom after a failed attempt to pull herself to standing. She looked up at me, clearly wondering if she needed to cry. I looked at her and smiled, with a cheerful and matter-of-fact, "You're just fine!" She tried again, and pulled herself back up. Lesson learned: I don't need Mommy when I startle myself by sitting down unexpectedly.

The stakes have gotten higher every year: In the third grade, she rode her scooter to school each morning and I stopped being responsible for getting her out of bed. At age ten, when we moved into a house with a (somehow) exciting front-loading washing machine in the basement, she started doing her own laundry. Later that year, she learned to use the city bus system to get to and from school. Now, in the sixth grade, she bikes to school - so far, regardless of the weather - and packs her own lunch.

I can't quite take full credit for this, however: There's something about Twelve that makes her go above and beyond. Her first steps were away from me - luckily, we were in a safe place. In the fourth grade, I walked her the two blocks to the city bus stop on the first day or two, just on principle. The second day, I got a phone call from the bus: "Mom, can I just stay on the bus and get off at the library? I'll walk home when I'm done." She is now expected to keep me informed of her whereabouts, but she can pretty much go wherever she's comfortable going - on foot, by bicycle, or on the bus.

The interesting thing is that now, after over a decade of gently encouraging her to go out into the world on her own and do her thing, I'm holding on tighter than ever. Not in a restrictive way, not to restrict the levels of freedom and responsibility she's achieved, but in a companionable, unobtrusively available sort of way. Sure, we can go to the Goodwill, yet another hoodie can't hurt. Yeah, let's go to the grocery store, you do need lunch foods. Whoa, your new nail polish pens are super-duper exciting! Yes, I can be home when you get home from school today. And, occasionally (with a dramatic sigh): Okay, I will put your laundry in the dryer before I go to bed.

I've got two complementary theories about why I've suddenly developed this approach. First, I've heard the stories. I know that a teenage nightmare might be just around the next birthday, and I'm terrified. Twelve is a lovely - if albeit periodically maddening - young person, and I want to enjoy it whilst it lasts. If she wants to go shopping with me, then by golly, we're going to go shopping. If she wants to sit on my lap, whadda ya know, my lap is available. Not to be overly sappy about it, but every day is a gift.

Second, Mary Pipher wrote this book called Reviving Ophelia. A great book. I haven't quite decided if it should be read before your daughter hits adolescence (so you know what to avoid), or after (so you know what you avoided), but you should definitely read it. Anyway, she says something about teenage angst having to do with the confusing state of wanting lots of separation from parents but at the same time needing lots of support from parents. I figure that Twelve has always had as much separation as she wants, so she's probably okay there for now, and I might as well add in some extra support.

If it just so happens that support comes in the form of shimmery turquoise nail polish that I am definitely going to have to remove before teaching my next class, so be it.

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