I smiled this morning as I watched my little 9-year-old Nora stand up on her pedals and speed through the alley behind our house on her way to school. She looked so big and grown up with her long, light brown hair blowing in the wind beneath her helmet. It feels like just last week she was riding her tricycle on that same patch of asphalt. Where has the time gone?
We moved into this house seven years ago when Nora was two and her older sister, Lucy, was five. Now, Nora’s in third grade and Lucy’s in middle school. Back then my parental responsibilities included cutting grapes in half, trying to get little feet into tiny socks, and doing my best to bravely face the perils of potty training.
Even as their physical needs are decreasing, their emotional needs are starting to ramp up.
The tweens are officially upon us. We’ve moved on from tying shoes to learning how to apply mascara and the importance of daily deodorant. I’m slowly becoming less of a hands-on caretaker and more of a live-in consultant and therapist specializing in late-night conversations.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about all of the ways my parents provided for me. I knew I could count on them to give me enough food, water, and even several brand new outfits to wear during the first week of school each year.
I didn’t consider all the emotional support they provided.
Like the way my mom would come to every single one of my volleyball, basketball, and softball games, and how her unmistakable voice was consistently (and literally) the loudest in the crowd. I never thought about how much confidence it gave me when my dad took me to the gym every Sunday night and rebounded for me as I shot baskets over and over. He’s never been much of a talker, so helping me with my free throw form was his way of saying I love you.
I remember the day my mom and I left home to make the four-hour drive up to my new college. Once the car was loaded, I gave my dad a goodbye hug and I saw him cry for maybe the second time in my whole life. I think those tears were a mixture of pride for how grown up I had become and also sadness that I was about to spread my wings and fly away.
It was the tension of parenting summed up in that one bittersweet moment: Equipping our children then letting them go.
That first year of college was one of the hardest and loneliest of my life. And even though my parents weren’t with me, I still felt their love and support. I kept all of the cards and letters my mom wrote to me during that hard year. Each one felt like a little life raft of hope. When I look at them, I can still remember how powerful it was to know my parents believed in me—that even if I didn’t fit in in college, I would always have a place to belong. They weren’t yelling from the stands anymore, but they were still cheering me on.
And now my eyes are misty with tears from even typing that. No matter how much I want them to stay small, Lucy and Nora keep growing every day, and my husband and I are trying our best to teach them the practical and emotional skills they need to thrive in the world without us. Little by little, they’re becoming stronger and wiser. And little by little, we have to let them go. But if we’ve done our job well, we can trust that no matter how old our children are, they will still reach out their hand to us.
As my kids keep taking steps toward their own independence, I pray they feel that same support I’ve felt from my parents. I hope they know that no matter how old they are, whether they need help with a task or simply my love and affection, they always have my hand to hold.
JJ Heller’s emotional new children’s book, Hand To Hold illustrates the unconditional love a parent has for her child. Available today!
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