When my boys were little, we stood out in the backyard one afternoon watching a mother bird nudge each of her babies out of the nest for their first flight.
After the last fledgling made it safely to the ground, I looked at my boys, their eyes wide, and said, “That will be you when you turn 18.”
My oldest son is now just a month shy of that milestone birthday. When he started his senior year of high school last fall, a lifetime of memories began playing like a slideshow in my mind. I was suddenly painfully aware that one chapter of my parenting journey was coming to a close. I found myself staring at my oldest child across the dinner table and trying to imagine what it would be like staring at an empty chair next fall. But more than focusing on what the future would bring, I found myself reflecting on all of the moments that had led to this point.
There was the first year of motherhood that began with panic and tears of exhaustion, and ended with delight over first words and that tentative first step. Just when I thought I had the whole parenting thing figured out, baby number two arrived and it felt like starting over. I was once again bumbling through sleepless nights with a newborn followed by non-stop days with a toddler, all the while praying I wasn’t causing any long-term damage (the first three years of brain development are the most important – no pressure!)
Days packed with pretend play, countless trips to the park and probably far too much TV soon led to the first day of school. The elementary years started with several stressful weeks of separation anxiety followed by a blur of new friends and soccer games, school concerts and a bizarre new form of math.
Middle school ushered in the first rumblings of puberty, science fair projects and a whole new set of parenting fears that led to candid talks about peer pressure and consequences. Grades suddenly held more weight, life lessons were a bit harsher and the eye roll became an art form.
And then came high school – the beginning of letting go.
It’s starts innocently enough…outings with new friends, first dates, those first few driving lessons spent white-knuckling the passenger-side door. Before you know it, your child is pulling out of the driveway on their own for the first time, and you are left white-knuckling the arm of the sofa until you hear the familiar whir of the garage door.
There are countless hours spent watching the clock, far too many unanswered texts, a battle of wills over course selection and test scores and friend groups. There are also movies without cartoon characters, full-blown conversations about grown-up stuff and a first glimpse at the young man your baby has become.
With each year, the dynamic shifts.
Junior year is a pressure cooker of rigorous coursework, college tours and standardized tests. Fall of senior year is spent pouring over college essays and applications, homework and final stabs at test scores.
And then it arrives: spring of senior year and that first glimmer of the light at the end of the tunnel. We had just reached that point when COVID-19 reared its ugly head. College offers were in, the third quarter was a wrap, the light was there. And then our kids were suddenly forced into a world of isolation and online learning.
That was six weeks ago. We have since learned students will not return to their classrooms this year. Senior activities, including graduation, have been cancelled. It is tough for all kids. For the Class of 2020, it’s a crushing blow.
My son is taking it surprisingly well, and instead of planning a combined graduation/18th birthday party, I have found myself with more time to reflect. I’ve come to the realization that there are hundreds of books covering all aspects of how to raise children, but very few on how to let them go. It seems almost cruel that we pour so much time and energy and love into a tiny human only to set them free. But I have discovered that, much like that mama bird, our key role as parents is to teach our children how to fly. I have spent the better part of the last two years trying to navigate the delicate balance between giving him the freedom he craves (and deserves) while finding ways to squeeze in as many “final” moments as I can. Between school, extracurriculars, time with friends, and homework, there were days I barely saw my son.
He was inching toward the edge of the nest and I was trying to build up the courage for that final nudge.
This forced isolation brought my parenting journey full circle. Both boys are once again here with me 24/7. With their social lives on pause, we’ve gotten back to family game nights and movie nights, and conversations at the dinner table linger just a bit longer. We do our best to focus not on what has been lost but what is yet to come. My husband and I share stories of our college lives (well, not all the stories) with assurances that brighter days lie ahead.
There is still some uncertainty as to whether our son’s college will resume on-campus classes in the fall. A friend recently asked me if I had my choice would I want him to stay or go. “GO!!” I replied. Not because I am ready to get rid of him – far from it. I will miss him so much it will hurt. But I am at the point in my parenting journey where my job is to let go. It won’t be forever, and I will always be his mom, but once he walks out that door it will never be the same. I have made my peace with that.
While these days of isolation have been scary and frustrating and heart wrenching for so many, I have to admit I have enjoyed having my boys safely settled back in our nest – I’ll cherish these extra moments forever. But when it is safe to do so, I’ll get right back to nudging my first born from the nest.
And, oh, I cannot wait to see him fly!