“I’ve never forgotten the sad look in her eye when a mother stood up during one of my parenting seminars and wistfully remarked that from the moment her daughter was born every single day brought another experience of learning how to let go. Indeed, “letting go” for many parents is a life-long challenge and a constant source of emotional trauma.
Speak to any early childhood principal or nursery school teacher and they will share with you story after story of parents who were so reluctant to let go of their children, that they walk them into the classroom, pretend to be leaving and then circle back and hang around by the front door for hours “just in case.” It’s called “separation anxiety,” and although originally coined to refer to the distress that some children experience the first few times their parents leave them in a strange school environment, most early childhood teachers find it more often applies to parents than kids.
Regular readers of this column will recall a wonderful comment I have shared in the past from an anonymous parent, who once said that choosing to have a child is choosing to have your heart walk around out side your body for the rest of your life. In many ways the trauma of letting go is both that simple and that profound. Having a child is one of the most profound and serious commitments that anyone can ever make in life, and to take that commitment seriously is feel connected in the most fundamental way to your children for life.
How many of us had the experience growing up that no matter when we would come home from a date, one of our parents would always be up waiting. When our teenage daughter was living at home and had a curfew, she showed up with minutes to spare 100% of the time. We absolutely knew without a shadow of doubt, that she was so punctual and reliable in this regard that we could have literally set our watches by when Gable would walk in the door. So did that make waiting for her return home any easier? Not really. For no matter how reliable she was, we still couldn’t do anything at all without some little nagging part of our consciousness worrying about whether or not she was safe.
That is the lot of parents – having our hearts running around out side our bodies forever. And it never really goes away. When they move to another state, or go away to college, or grow up and take a job in another city – most parents still worry. After all, one thing you can count on for the rest of your life is that if you choose to become a parent you will never run out of things to worry about. I have work with hundreds of parents over the years, and there is no question but that a small part of every parent’s consciousness is permanently tuned in to worrying about his or her child. Most of that worry is simply a healthy reflection of the fact that most parents take the responsibilities of parenting very seriously and is a totally appropriate way to feel.
For example, my youngest sister (I have three of them) is forty-two years old and recently had her first child after a number of years of trying to get pregnant, experiencing various medical procedures and the full array of today’s infertility intervention miracles. Would anyone imagine that because she is a grown forty-two year old adult herself, my parents weren’t constantly worrying about her? Of course they were, because no matter how old our children become, parenting remains a life-long challenge and what I fondly call the ‘letting-go disease’ is a permanent condition for us all.
So having said what is probably obvious to all, how can we help ourselves as parents to experience less emotional trauma and pain as we face the many moments in our lives when letting go is the right thing to do? First, recognize that letting go is one of the most important emotional gifts you can possibly give to your children. Children spend their lives separating from their parents and learning how to disentangle their emotional lives from that of their mother and father. To grow a healthy sense of self and learn to feel that we are competent and individuals and confident of our abilities to thrive and succeed in triumphing over life’s challenges, it is absolutely crucial for children to learn how to stand on their own emotional two feet. That is the gift that parent’s give by letting go.
From our earliest years as children, one of single most important challenges we face is to discover who we are in relation to others. Infants begin life by experiencing themselves primarily as extensions of others (mostly their mothers) and others as extensions of them. As we grow and experience life’s pleasures, pains, disappointments and frustrations, we begin to learn that this thing called “me” is different from “you.” The more we are able to successfully develop a strong, integrated sense of self, the stronger we are emotionally, the more flexible we become at adapting to life’s many surprises and the more successful we are at creating healthy relationships with others.
Children need self-confidence to be successful in life. The only way they can learn that important lesson, is by learning to handle their own problems with peers, learning that they can rely upon themselves and their own inner resources to find solutions to their everyday problems. I knew a father who was so protective of his daughter that he volunteered every day at her school just so he could keep a constant eye out for her. Every time she got into a dispute with another child on the playground, daddy would swoop down to her rescue, always take her side in every disagreement and always defend her against anyone and everyone else.
At the time the little girl thought he was the world’s best father. Who wouldn’t want their dad to be a constantly riding to their rescue? But the tragic result was that she grew up unable to make and keep friends, emotionally unable to stand on her own two feet and dependent upon him to take care of her long after her peers were successfully on their own. Though her father might have looked like a wonderful, caring parent, he ended up stealing his daughter’s sense of self-reliance and robbing her of the important social skills necessary for success in life.
That is why letting go is so important. It is truly the ultimate parental sacrifice, and often the single most difficult thing a parent ever has to do. Although your children may never thank you directly, letting go is one of the most precious, powerful and loving gifts that you can ever give them.