Yes, I can say, honestly, that I had a favorite moment about my daughter’s homecoming yesterday. Homecoming, again, you ask? Yes, she’s been traveling a lot this summer, and will do so again.
My older daughter is actually a grown woman, in so many ways. Over 18. Headed for college: Northeastern University, Boston. Focused on her degree: nursing. Traveling internationally at the end of the summer (Italy) and for the first semester at school (Greece). Meanwhile, working an office job plus bussing in a restaurant for several weeks, saving money. Making plenty of her own choices, without the need to check in with dad and mom about whether it’s okay or not. As far as I can tell, she uses sound judgment, and keeps herself reasonably safe, though she’s willing to take chances, too, which is a healthy balance. Living independently, setting her own hours, making her own plans.
She spent several days out of state with a friend. She saved up the money for the trip, planned it and was responsible for her own itinerary, goals and arrangements. In many ways it was one in a series of symbolic journeys that stake claim to her adulthood.
This was a post-graduation trip she had planned with a companion as a celebration. It was a whirlwind turnaround, just 48 hours after she’d come home from the youth group’s community service trip to Staten Island, NYC.
So much coming and going. It’s like rehearsal for her “big” departure to college, studying abroad for a semester, this autumn.
She just returned home last night. Again.
Chris (my husband) and I had talked about the transition each time she leaves. He has observed, and I think he’s correct, that her absence has more immediate and daily impact on me than him, in some ways. Not that he doesn’t miss her. Just that he goes to work and focuses on that, while even though she’s grown, my days remain more organized around Sarah’s needs and schedule.
Since she’s an adult and quite independent, that may sound surprising. Yet our days often intersect as we work out connections. It’s a careful dance of boundaries, of her emerging role as an adult woman in the house, a give and take between parent and grown child, the little daily steps of an intimate and changing family relationship.
So when she’s gone, I take time to become accustomed to her absence. To the lack of Sarah-centric activities: calling out hello when I hear the front door swing open or click shut, stocking the fridge with fruit she’d prefer or a beverage she enjoys, or scheduling how we’ll share the car for the day
Then just about the time I stop waking up, wondering if she’s home yet, or checking my phone for a call about the day’s plans, or asking if she wants to have dinner with us, or whatever other little ways we’d connect about logistics, she comes home again. And those “tuning in to the Sarah channel” habits settle back into place.
When she’s home, I check in with her. Not a lot, but hopefully enough to find out if she wants or needs anything from her parents during the day.
Sure, I thought I’d be ready for her launch to college in the fall. Yet the deep way in which I missed both Sarah and Chris when they were away in Staten Island was a reality check. Even the smaller ache of her trip to Florida was a revelation.
Realistically, I can’t prepare, totally, for her departure … I’ll have to experience it when it comes, go through the changes that come with her absence, and become accustomed to new rhythms and ways of being connected from afar, as two adults.
She’ll be away from home more this summer. Overnight. Weekends. Several days.
Each trip will be, for me, a lesson in letting go. For her, another chance to take up adulthood.
I’m learning the rhythms of a mom whose older daughter is alive and well, but living some distance away, and claiming the life of a grown woman.
Now you can argue that, yes, our children aren’t fully adult until their early twenties. Technically, their brains aren’t completely developed until they’re about 22. In some ways, they’re not even physiologically able to function as adults until then, because the part of the brain that exercises judgment about risk-taking and consequences, etc., isn’t actually all wired until their early twenties.
Wait, not actually an adult until 22 or 23? Yeah, right. Sure. Tell that to my high-school-graduated, off-to-college daughter. She feels like an adult. She acts, a lot, like an adult. She has many of the responsibilities of an adult.
Legally, state by state, our children have different rights at different ages. For instance, in the Commonwealth of MA, by age 15 they can establish sexual emancipation and seek contraception and treatment without parental consent. At age 16 they can start driving with a limited license. By age 18 they’re voting (we hope), may join the military, co-sign a college loan, and legally manage their medical care (for most situations, they’re now considered legal adults). After age 21 they can purchase and consume alcohol, or rent a car.
Those are all technicalities, and don’t apply to individuals. None of it, in reality, is the measure of cognitive development. Or emotional maturity. It’s just a date on a piece of paper that sets a standard to provide some common rights for all citizens.
So meanwhile, Sarah’s finding the real balance of what she wants to do on her own, and what she wants to share with us, her family.
And I’m learning to step back. Hold my breath. Wait.
I’ve done it before – let go as a child journeyed where I couldn’t follow — in different, more permanent ways, when my youngest child Jessie died.
Trust me that Sarah’s coming and going, her impending departure to college, and my own acclimation to being the parent of a grown daughter, is not the same. It is a separate and equally important experience. This way of letting go is a healthy and natural step for all mothers and children.
Natural. Also, messy. Imperfect. Sometimes heart-breaking. Other times exhausting. Exhilarating, for each of us, in different ways. Always a work in progress, as boundaries and expectations change. Hard to do. Yet desirable.
For each of us, her departures and returns are steps in a bigger journey. The transformation toward a different, more mature relationship.
I believe … I hope … that we will be mother and daughter, but also friends, on the other side of this evolution, this change, this transition. There’s so much I admire and respect about my daughter. Conversations we’ve already had. Others I hope we’ll have. Experiences we have shared, and others yet to come.
So when she came home yesterday? Well, Chris was stationed in the car in the parking lot, while I was in the airport, looking for Sarah. Sarah and I somehow missed each other, and she found dad first. Loaded her bags into the car. By the time I got back, everyone was buckled in place, ready to go home.
There she was, Sarah sitting in the back of the car, me in the front. I turned around, said hello, welcome home, over the headrest. Huh. We were divided by seats and belts, by knees and elbows, by the need to get out of the parking garage, and by just plain awkwardness.
The moment to greet each other had passed, a missed opportunity. Sigh. Oh, well.
Then when we stopped to eat dinner on the way home? She didn’t sit down in the booth right away. Instead, she stood there, and reached out with both arms.
Asked me, “Can I have a welcome home hug from you?”
Wow. My daughter.
In that moment, right there? Such grace. Such insight. Such good ways of saying out loud what she needs, laying claim to what is healthy in a relationship, and then doing something about it.
I loved that embrace. That Sarah wanted it. That we both needed it. That she asked aloud for it.
I loved that we held on tight, for a long moment, and connected without words. Sometimes words liberate us. But sometimes words get in the way.
Meanwhile, that welcome home hug? For me, it was the best part of her immediate homecoming.
That hug said just about everything that really mattered.