A few weeks ago, my five-year-old daughter stood for the first time on a stage, facing an audience, with a role in a play and her very own line to speak:
“And the soldiers marched to war.”
It wasn’t a real play, just a narrated reenactment of Disney’s Mulan, produced by a county summer camp program. I had watched her perform before, lined up with her nursery school friends, wearing paper bag Indian costumes, singing songs about turkeys and pilgrims.
But something about the sight of my little girl craning her neck to reach the standing microphone and then belting out her line, boldly and proudly, caused a body slam of confused emotions – pride, nostalgia, anxiety, relief, and that strange feeling of loss that parents can feel even when holding their child in their arms.
It was the same moiling brew of emotions that I have found myself tampering down at random moments ever since the summer began with full time kindergarten waiting for us at its end. So I was familiar with those feelings, but rather surprised by their force.
I can’t say exactly why that one moment of my daughter’s performance was so emotionally powerful. Perhaps it was simply the sight of her, singled out in the spotlight, so small, yet so confident and capable, on that big stage.
Perhaps it was the line itself. I tend to think in hyperbole, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to compare our school years to war. My own memories recall that time as a series of battles of who is in and who is out; who is good enough and who is somehow lacking. It’s a never-ending game of social King of the Hill, and my baby was about to march innocently into it.
Going into parenthood, we already know from our own experience that growing up is hard to do. What we don’t know is that it’s even harder when it is happening to our children.
They start out so small, so squishable, with curlicue bodies and necks that seem to be made of pipe cleaners. They don’t cry; they mewl. Everything they do – every yawn, every jerky kick, every sleepy half-smile – is miraculous. To feel their weight on your chest is to be branded forever with love and possessiveness for that person in that body. And forever means that even when you are ninety, and in a nursing home, and your sixty-year-old son is holding your hand, you are longing to hold the infant you bore decades before. I have that on my grandmother’s authority.
Which is why hugging your five-year-old goodbye, and sending her off into an educational system that can nurture and teach, but can’t ensure that she always has a friend to sit next to at lunch, is such an overwhelmingly emotional thing for a mother to do. Not just because that world can be scary, but because entering it represents yet another step your child is taking away from you. Their independence is at the same time thrilling (and freeing!) and heartbreaking.
These are the feelings that have followed me throughout the past few months. They are the feelings that I know will overtake me tomorrow, when I drop my kindergartener off for her very first day of elementary school.
But over the last few days, as I have found myself thinking almost non-stop about this looming change in our lives, I have come to understand one other thing. That with every step our children take toward their own independence, they are both walking away from us, their parents, and walking toward us.
I will never hold my newly born first child in my arms again. Even though there are moments when I ache do so, that time has passed. But as my daughter becomes more independent, and as I become less necessary to her, she will become completely herself. And as she grows into the person she was created to become, I have the good fortune not only to witness her transformation, but also to meet her, as equals, at the other side of it.
So tomorrow, as I stifle my tears at the loss of this part of my baby girl’s childhood, I will be reminding myself that the only gift greater than the birth of a child is seeing that child shine in the light of her own fulfilled potential.