My 18-year-old daughter appears in the kitchen in a Ruth Bader Ginsburg sweatshirt, makes a mug of Rice Krispies treats in the microwave, and shows me a photo on her phone of two sloths hugging. That’s Claire. Like yours, she’s one of a kind. Like yours, she’s irreplaceable.
Since her sister left home for college a few years ago, and then the pandemic canceled everything in Claire’s life and mine, I’ve gotten used to big doses of her. I have watched her do her days. I heard school happen. I smelled the garlic when she cooked. At night, I leaned over her in bed and kissed her head. Her presence was a full-on 24/7 sensory experience.
But now it’s time for her to go, too. We pack her favorite poster, that black-and-white photo of four nuns smoking. She slips some shot glasses into socks and then stuffs them into her Doc Martens. There are five books that she can’t leave behind, including Samantha Power’s memoir and the first Harry Potter.
We arrive on her new school’s campus, it takes all of 43 minutes to set up her dorm room, and then, the savage goodbye.
The campus psychologist had sent out a note to all parents of incoming freshmen, imploring us to limit contact, and emphasizing that this includes texts. Apparently, this is a time for our children to “individuate and separate.”
So, this kid I made — this kid who is mine — has left and, if I’m following the expert advice, her days will now be a black box to me? Is this the beginning of my knowing as little about her as my mother knew, and knows, about me? Just the broad strokes in a weekly FaceTime session?
As my husband and I drive away in the empty minivan, I feel the thud of a thought: She’s not yours. And the truth is, she never was.
You can’t blame me for having gotten it wrong. Before our children become themselves, when they are more physical than intellectual and emotional, we claim them piece by piece. The way he sits like his dad. The furrow of her brow, so much like her mom’s. Her flat feet, his luscious eyelashes, just like Grandpa’s.
During high school, when Claire was ignoring me, I liked to tease her. “Claire, I made you, right here, in my stomach,” I’d say, pointing. “Then I pushed you out into the world without an epidural.”
Rather than coming to me with open arms to recognize this gift of life I had conferred upon her, she’d say: “You didn’t make me in your stomach, Mom. I mean, you know I didn’t come out of your stomach, don’t you?”
She knew more than biology. She understood even then what I couldn’t — that I didn’t have any ownership over her. Wherever she came out of and whomever she looked just like and however much she needed from me, she didn’t belong to me.
There was a time, way back, when parents had teams of children to work on the farm, and the kids didn’t have any rights of their own. In my mother’s childhood, a seen-and-not-heard affair, the goal was to raise well-behaved, upstanding types to present to society. In my own, we were sent out to play after breakfast and called home at 6 p.m. for frozen pizza, canned lima beans and an Oreo on a TV tray.
Today, the child is not a laborer, a set piece or a mouth to feed. Today, for (much) better and (maybe a little) worse, a child is potential to be nurtured and a relationship to be relished. Whether the ferocious investment in this generation has been in service of our kids or of our own egos is a question for another day. Whatever the case, when parenting became a verb, children became projects, and projects are easy to claim as one’s own.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, the psychologist Ariel Trost told me. “If we can let go of this notion of ownership and see us as our own and them as their own, it can create a space to marvel,” she said. “Ownership is not closeness.”
Borrowing from Buddhism, Dr. Trost suggests aiming for a compassionate detachment. Not detachment from our children, but from the outcome of who they are becoming. “We are working toward a place where we can enjoy each other,” she said.
My husband and I made a baby who became a toddler who became a kid, and then that kid became fiercely capable and, well, unstoppable.
Our parting marks the ultimate success. Every unit of love that passed between us — all that attachment — made it possible for her detach, to build, as the campus psychologist said, her “own nest, emotionally and socially, outside the context of the family.”
Not that I’m having an easy time accepting this. A few days after dropping her off, I see on the school’s electronic newsletter that the first-year students went to the football stadium to learn the fight song from the marching band. I zoom in on the photos — Claire is 5-foot-10, so I have some hope of a glimpse — but I can’t find her. And she hasn’t called yet.
Claire’s path has split from mine, as it should. Maybe the best is yet to come — or at least something as good — when we as mother and daughter are just two people, each on her epic journey, comparing notes, as equals.
Kelly Corrigan (@kellycorrigan on Instagram) is the author of “Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say.” She is also the host of the weekly podcast “Kelly Corrigan Wonders” and the forthcoming PBS show “Tell Me More.”
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