I was carrying the laundry basket down the hall. I walked past her room. The door was open just a few inches, and I happened to glance in to see her sitting on her bed. I was moving quickly because I hate laundry and because the basket was heavy. I stepped one foot beyond her doorway and stopped. I heard a voice inside me say, “Look again. This. Karen, you must look at this.” So I set the basket down in the hall and quietly backed up. I stood in the dark hallway, my hands clutched to my chest, and I looked at her.
Her laptop was open, the glow of the screen shining on her face. Music softly played in the background. Her hair was in a messy bun on the top of her head. Little strands framed her face, and I was half tempted to go in and brush the hair out of her eyes. Her bed covered in books, papers, new pens, and a journal. The sparkly chandelier above her bed cast patterns and shadows all around her. Two pairs of dirty socks and overalls on the floor. A cup of tea on her nightstand and her track and field medals and graduation cap hanging on the wall next to her. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly as she typed away on the computer. Her exhale made the strands quiver, which tickled her face enough to make her push the hair from her eyes. She looked up at the ceiling as though the answer to a question written in the sky.
My lips quivered, and tears streamed down my face. Every memory flooded into my mind. The sound of her cry as a baby. Her white-blonde toddler curls. Pushing her on the swings, tucking her into bed. School plays. The feeling of those last days of holding her in my arms. Middle school angst. Her painful tears during the divorce. Seeing her find the mastery of her physical strength through athletics. Holding her heart during heartbreaks and friend troubles. Watching her find her voice and her power. All of it. I felt it all. I almost gasped but didn’t want her to hear me not because I was ashamed, but rather that I did not want the moment to end.
You see, she is leaving. My girl is leaving. I count myself lucky as her admittance to college begins in January instead of August. So I am sucking the marrow out of every moment, even if it occurs in a dark hallway and through a partially opened door.
I got a job on March 3, 2001. It was a good job — an important role. I went from working on the line in the factory to being CEO overnight. The job required total commitment and every skill I had. And, oh man, I had to develop new skills on the quick. There was no textbook, no training, no workshop to prepare me for the totality of the experience.
Motherhood grabs your sense of self and shoves it deep under the covers like the socks you went to bed wearing then quickly ditched because of night sweats. Those socks don’t reappear until you change your sheets. Let’s face it. Sometimes that is a very long time. Motherhood changes you. Even the most self-aware, confident, and connected women who consciously parent their children are affected by motherhood. It does more than weave itself into the fabric of who you are. It becomes you. Most of us don’t go kicking and screaming. We let it wash over us and carry us downstream into unknown waters of motherhood.
The river is about to meet an ocean of unknown. I stand here now in a dark hallway, peering into her room, knowing that she will be gone, and my heart is asking, “Do you remember how to swim?”
The day Zoë was born, my dad held her in his arms, looked at me, and said, “Oh, sweetheart. Today is the day that you begin to let her go.” I sat there with my mouth hanging open, thinking, ”Um. Yeah. No. Let her go? She is 3 hours old! NEVER! I will never, ever let her go!” Three hours old and motherhood was the majority thread holder in the fabric of my being.
I hated him for saying it, but I now understand what he meant. You see, my father was paralyzed with fear when my siblings and I began to outgrow our youth. He held on so tightly that it suffocated our growth. My brother, sister, and I each experienced that in our way. I became a pleaser and stunted my emotional growth around the age of 13. The healthy, natural separation and development necessary to become an adult made him feel so lost and lonely because aside from his work as a firefighter, we were the source of his happiness. We were his mirrors. We reflected all the good he did and everything good about him. Children turn off that faucet. They must, so they can begin to look at their reflection and create an identity all their own. It comes in the form of slamming a door, spending every waking minute with friends, disconnecting from you to learn to connect to themselves.
When you come into motherhood, or in his case fatherhood, fractured and struggling to love and connect to yourself, it is difficult not to use your children as a life raft in the river of parenthood. But when they slap that valve shut, you can feel adrift in the rapids, slamming against the rocks, bloodied and bruised.
I told myself that I would never repeat that cycle. I said to myself that I would be different. I wasn’t. It wasn’t until I was crushed with crippling depression because I was a people-pleasing, 13-year-old living in a 38-year-old body, that I realized how closely I was repeating that pattern. She was 11. I began the long, slow march to grow into the strong, imperfect, self-aware woman that I am today. How I did that is for another blog. What I can say is that it is available for you if you are willing to connect deeply to yourself.
What he was trying to say to me that day is, ”My beautiful daughter… Hold her close, but not too tightly because she doesn’t belong to you. She isn’t you. Be the space for her. Be the example of who she will aspire to be. She doesn’t owe you a thing. Continue to evolve and become. Anchor yourself to your internal wisdom and never, ever lose sight of the wonder of you. Love her, but be separate from her so she can make mistakes and learn to be a whole person who can be compassionate to others and herself. You need nothing outside of you to measure your greatness in the world. She will go, and you must be whole and happy when she isn’t there to tell you that you are. Focus on being the best you, not the best parent, and she will be amazing. Let her grow and let her go.”
In the darkness of the hallway, the question echoed in my mind. “Do you remember how to swim?” My heart answered. Fuck yes. Am I sad? Oh my gosh, yes. I will miss the sound of her voice in the house. I will miss the energy she brings. I will miss going into her room and picking up the teacups she left on the nightstand and finding her 18-year-old little green blanket underneath her pillow. Yes. I will miss her with every fiber of my soul. But I have been slowly demoting myself from the position of CEO of her life. Make no mistake about it. I still work for her company, but I don’t have the same job I did 18 years ago. I am a trusted advisor and counsel, not CEO. I am not supposed to be. It’s her time. It is also mine. It’s time to swim again in uncharted waters, but this time fully connected to myself, completely whole and ready to swim.