Watching a Child Follow Her Own Path:
The Challenge of Staying Connected While Saying Good-Bye
Four years ago, at about this same time of the year, my husband and I were busily helping our daughter, Kimberly, prepare to leave for college in southern California. It was a hectic time filled with joyful anticipation combined with deep sorrow. Our daughter was growing up and moving out into the world on her own. This is the healthy goal toward which we work as parents—to prepare our children for taking on the attendant freedoms and responsibilities of adulthood. It was difficult to release her from the protection of home and the support of family and friends into the great unknown of college life and the challenges it would present her.
Now, four years later, having graduated with a degree in Religious Studies and discovered a passionate call to serve the poor and oppressed in third world countries, Kim is preparing to undertake a new adventure. On September 3rd, Jerry and I will put our 22 year-old daughter on a plane to Florida where she will meet up with other Peace Corps Volunteers and begin a life-changing journey of service to and with the people of Nicaragua. As it was before she left for college, our home is filled with joyful anticipation and deep sorrow. Once again we are saying good-bye to the daughter that we know and love and having to place our trust in life’s process of growth and development. All of us know that the girl who steps onto the plane September 3rd will come back a changed woman when she returns in December of 2003.
Watching our children grow into adulthood to follow their own path is one of the great challenges of parenting. As parents we must find a balance between holding on too tightly and letting go too soon. If we hold too tightly our children feel smothered and may lose trust in their own ability to function independently in life. If we let go too soon they may feel abandoned and develop of sense of being unloved and unlovable. Some reading this may say, “What is the fuss all about? Just let them get on with life.” This is a valid statement. And certainly after many years of making sacrifices to do a good job of parenting it is nice be able to pursue our own interests again.
The important part of the process is in developing a new relationship with our maturing child. Often we conceal the struggle from one another (and even from ourselves) through silence or covering it over with conflict. The question is how to reach the point of letting them go and gaining our deserved freedom in a way that will nurture their development and strengthen the emotional bond of a relationship that is in transition. This letting go is a gradual process of redefining our roles as parent and child. The operative word is “process”. We don’t make these changes by an act of the will alone. A healthy letting go process involves both internal wrestling and external communication and support.
Internal wrestling entails acknowledging and grieving the changing nature of the relationship. Some of my wrestling has centered on the following: my daughter no longer needs me in the same ways she did before; while in Nicaragua we won’t have the easy access to telephone conversations and email that we once did; I am concerned for her safety; I can’t predict what emotional and spiritual challenges she will have to face without the availability of her traditional support system. Growth always involves a letting go of our past ways being and venturing into new territory. Moving from the known into the unknown leaves us with no framework for what the future will hold. That period of time before the new becomes the familiar is often unsettling and fearful.
External communication and support means that we talk together about the wrestling that each is experiencing with moving into the unknown wherein we must establish new markers for making sense of our lives. It involves open, honest and respectful communication. Our job as parents is to avoid inducing guilt, but to let our children know that we too struggle during times of growth and change in our lives, thus making it OK for them to do the same.
Last Monday evening Kim and I sat across the table from one another at The Original Taco House (her favorite childhood eatery). With tears in our eyes we talked about how difficult it will be when she encounters the inevitable periods of loneliness and despair while working in a third world country and the fear that will grip us if there is political unrest in the future. She talked of how hard it will be at times like this to suffer without her usual support system close at hand. And I talked of my concerns for her safety and the pain of not being able to hear on a regular basis how she is handling the challenges she faces. As we sat talking I suddenly experienced a strong sense of my father’s presence rooting Kim on in her desire to serve the oppressed. (My dad died in 1978 while I was pregnant with Kim. She never knew him aside from the stories that have been shared with her over the years.) I told Kim that her grandfather would be proud of her—and for a moment, just an instant—it was as though he was there with us and the circle of love was unbroken by distance and by death. He had come to this country from Germany when he was six years old. He knew poverty in Germany and, for a period of time, discrimination in America. He too had a passion for the poor and the downtrodden. In that instant I could see my father living on in the zeal of my daughter’s call to serve the poor in Nicaragua.
I realized, just a bit more, that we are all connected by One Spirit. Although separated by distance and limited Nicaraguan infrastructure, our connection with Kim goes on. She has us deeply woven into the spirit of her being as we do her. That connection can never be broken by distance or time. And, as I learned sitting with my daughter and talking about my father, that connection cannot even be broken by death.
Through the One Spirit that unites us all,