Every week I talk to parents whose maternity or paternity leave is ending. They face, as I faced years ago, the more-bitter-than-sweet moment when you leave your child in someone else’s care and integrate your pre-parenting life with your now-I’m-a-parent life.
Your life is never the same once you’re a parent. I used to talk about parenting in terms of 18 years, and my own parents would assure me that the journey doesn’t end at 18. The journey of parenthood lasts a lifetime.
I remember taking my 3-month-old daughter to her school for the very first time. Before she started there full-time, they had a transition period in which I would stay with her there at the school for an hour and then leave for an hour. I know now that the transition day was more for me than for her, but at the time, I believed it was all for my precious 12-pound infant who couldn’t possibly survive without me.
I remember holding her in the rocker inside the baby room. I know the head teacher was assessing me as a mother as much as I was assessing the room where I’d leave my daughter. Right before I was to leave, my daughter started rooting around and giving hunger cues.
Up until that moment in my daughter’s life, I or her father had been there every time she was hungry. I told the lead teacher I would just nurse her before I left, and the lead teacher looked at me and said, “We will feed her. It is OK for you to go.”
Walking away from my rooting daughter was one of the hardest things I had ever done at that point in my life. The teacher warmed her bottle while I went to my car, called my mom, and drove around basically crying for an hour. At the 59-minute mark, I came back to the school to find my daughter well cared for, playing on the floor with her new friends, and smiling.
My kids learned so much at that school, and I learned so much as a parent. One of my favorite phrases they taught the toddlers to say was “Walk away! My space!” for a friend who was too close. Or “Walk away! My body!” for a friend who was touching them without consent. Or “Walk away! My work!” for a friend who was trying to take their toys.
I know now that one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a parent is when I need to walk away. Many of the lessons my kids have learned have occurred when I had to walk away and they had to learn to calm themselves and reach inside themselves to find their own solutions.
That first time I had to walk away was terrible, but it has gotten easier over 16 years. I had to walk away from preschool drop-offs. I had to walk away after taking them to their first days of kindergarten, the first day of middle school, the first day of high school. I walked away from them at summer camp and drill team tryouts and baseball teams where they knew no one and I wanted to just stay and monitor and manage their discomfort.
Each time I had to walk away, my children learned a lesson that made them stronger. Sometimes my kids need me to be close, but sometimes they need me to walk away. And that is a hard pill to swallow. It was truly a gift for me to hear, “We will feed her. It is OK for you to go.”
Now my kids are the ones telling me to walk away. My youngest child is now in 5th grade, that time between childhood and adolescence when you’re a little too cool for elementary traditions and horrified at the thought of having a real “Valentine.”
I bought the most benign valentines I could find for his class. Not too dorky. Not cheesy. Definitely nothing indicating a crush or “like-liking” someone. I bought simple LifeSaver lollipops.
All he had to do was write his name on the valentine stickers and put them on the lollipops, but he was insistent that he wouldn’t use the stickers. I raised my voice and told him it’s ridiculous to give valentines without the “you rock” and “be mine” stickers attached. How would classmates know the valentines were from him?
My son asked me to walk away, and he took a Sharpie marker and wrote his name on the lollipops’ cellophane wrappers and threw the stickers away.
There were 16 years between the time I had to walk away from the infant room of the Montessori school to the time I had to walk away from the valentine-making. And in those years, I’ve learned important lessons about when to walk away and when to stay close. I suspect that’s my path for a lifetime.