Last month I had the pleasure of spending a quiet Ash Wednesday at home with my younger daughter. It was just the two of us, because her dad was away travelling for work, and her older sister has been away at college since last September. Both of us were engrossed in our own work, but we shared a companionable silence and several cups of tea. Later in the day, I went out to do a house-call. On my way back, I stopped to get Indian food for dinner, as we had both agreed that we did not want to interrupt our work flow to prepare food. It was a calm, peaceful and productive day, and I was truly grateful for her quiet, determined self-contained and undemanding nature.
Shortly after that peaceful day, while I was helping her to pick apples, it struck me like a bolt of lightening, that this quiet determined self-contained apple-picking child would perhaps only have one more Ash Wednesday at home, and that I will need to find another way to pick apples. By the summer of 2020, my little daughter would be preparing to leave the nest to begin college, as her sister did in 2018. I had a glimmer of the sadness of separation on the Saturday morning that I took her to the examination centre to take her SATs, but that was a drizzle compared to the deluge of emotions that followed the apple tree realization…and so the journey of letting go began again for me. The only advantage of having done this once already is the knowing that I will survive it. I have learned over the years that the parenting journey is a different one for each child. As I prepare to open my arms to release this one, I think not only about how much she has grown from the helpless baby into an independent self sufficient teenager, but how much I have grown by trying to be the type of mother that she deserves.
Yet, it is not without some major trepidation that I contemplate the idea of this child being away at college. Who will remind her to eat, and drink water? Who will wake her up when she falls asleep with her head on the laptop, from sheer exhaustion, and tell her to go to bed? And remind her to take her vitamins and put some cocoa butter on her crusty elbows? How will she cope with the academic demands of college life when her attention to these little but important details of self-care is practically non-existent as far as I am concerned. These fears make me forget that, like me, my daughter responds to nagging by digging her heels in and continuing on her chosen path. So for the past year I have been nagging her to eat properly and get enough sleep so that she can continue to well at school and not get sick. She has steadfastly ignored my requests regardless of the pitch and tone of my voice. This method of effecting behaviour change is not one I would recommend as appropriate leaving- home preparation for anyone. Contrary to popular opinion in my family, I really don’t enjoy nagging, and frustration is not a state of mind that I strive to attain and maintain.
Triggered by the apple tree realisation, I paused to reflect on what was driving my fear: my younger daughter’s approach to life is like high intensity interval training (HIIT) where one engages in repeated bursts of full speed all-out effort followed by rest periods. Since I am more of a long distance walker, I assumed that my daughter’s HITT style is unsustainable. Yet she has sustained that approach for 12 years of school. She has not only sustained it, but has thrived on it. So is it right for me to insist that she now change because it is not my way? I worry about her lack of attention to self care, yet I cannot argue with the fact that she hardly ever gets sick, that she has more energy than me to run up the hill when we walk, and that she has managed to achieve more academically with her way of doing things than I did at her age. It would appear that I am the one with issues, not my daughter.
My frustration at having my good advice ignored made me overlook the fact that my daughter is in fact very different from me at that age. At the age of 17 years she possessed a sense of quiet confidence in her own abilities that I could only dream of even when I was twice her age. That self confidence is solidly rooted in working to achieve academic excellence, as well as overcoming her own fears, and understanding that the best way to learn is by making mistakes. She listens to her own inner voice, and speaks her truth quietly but forcefully. She tends to keep her own company yet when her name is called out at the various award ceremonies at school, the extra loud applause and cheers by her classmates is unmistakable. She has clearly made her presence felt and appreciated.
As I marvelled at the self-contained capable unassuming young lady that she has grown into, I realised that we did not get here because of a nagging mother telling her what to do. We got here through countless thoughtful conversations whether by spoken or written word, and trying to match our actions to our words. We got here by reasoning together about the difference between principles and preferences. We got here because my approach to parenting was less about imposing my will and more about honouring who the child is. I chose to nurture her spirit rather than attempting to bend or break it. I want her to be the best possible version of herself, not a new and improved version of myself or her dad.
As I find myself contemplating the imminent departure of my second daughter from the safety of the nest, I have doubts as to whether I made the right parenting choices at critical moments. I am reminded of the words of Khalil Gibran “ You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you” as I consider my options going forward. I could hold to my parenting principle of honouring who my child is, and respect her choices which sometimes involve skipping a meal and/or sleep in the pursuit of excellence. Alternatively I could continue to squander my last months with my daughter by nagging her to do things my way because I am second guessing my parenting decisions. I think my daughter has earned the right to do things in the way that works for her. My inner voice tells me to follow my daughter’s example and be confident in my own abilities as a parent because she herself is the proof that I did in fact make the right choices in the past.