Parents adjust as a child moves forward

Posted April 17, 2009, at 6:05 p.m.

Recently, while packing to attend my daughter’s college graduation, I found I had to fight back a few tears. You see, I was not just putting clothes into a suitcase for myself, but I was gathering up personal items and household things for my daughter to use in her new life beyond college.

The tears took me by surprise, since I’ve known for some time that she would not be living at home at any length again. I thought I had accepted this. In fact, I’d even enjoyed chatting with my daughter about her plans to live and work in the Midwest.

Nevertheless, when it came time to pack up her favorite books, her dance shoes, Red Sox pennant and even the few stuffed animals that always waited on her bed for her return home, I realized in a more profound and final way, that my little girl is a woman now, and she is moving on.

At first, it didn’t help when my daughter’s sorority sister requested that I send some childhood photos to be put into an end-of-year presentation. I felt sentimental as I looked through loads of photos taken throughout my daughter’s life. I made sure to select photos that represent her joys and triumphs. I also tried to remember which photos my daughter liked the best — even down to the camera angles she prefers — so she would be presented in a manner that would make her comfortable among her friends.

It comes naturally to me to think about what will be best for my daughter. After all, I have come to know this lovely young woman very well over 21 years. But it is a different story when it comes to my comforting myself at this time. Watching a child move on is a heady emotional mix of pride, nostalgia and some sadness. How does a mother steady herself through a celebratory time in her daughter’s life that also brings change for mom?

There is no trail map for this personal journey. This is a juncture where the gate swings wide open.

Wiping my eyes, I looked at the photos I’d selected and recalled how the moments they represented had been milestones not just for my child but for me, too. Captured on film, my baby’s first yawn made me realize she was not just a part of me but an individual, with her own body rhythms, her own sleeping and waking times. The picture of her cradling a piglet in her arms marked the day she chose to control her own diet by becoming a vegetarian. The ballet photo recalled my daughter’s confidence in her own body’s capabilities, and a courage she had that surpassed my own in stepping onstage to demonstrate this.

On all of those photographed occasions, the emotional gate had swung wide open. Each time, I had known that just as she moved ahead, so must I. Packing my daughter’s things and perusing those photos, I know it is time for me to stride through that gaping gate once more.

And I remember one sure thing that always gets me through it: the smile of pride I will wear for my daughter’s sake. After all, the art of parenting lies less in teaching your progeny how to take steps than it does in adjusting to the child’s own marvelous leaps forward.

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