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It was 72 hours of labor, 24 of them especially difficult. Waves of long, powerful transition contractions fought my exhausted 19 year old body until it wouldn’t quite function anymore. Then, finally, the sweetness of an epidural and IV fluids, allowing me to fall into the deepest, restorative sleep. Six hours later I woke, revived, and pushed her out, warm and wet into the bright cold world.
Her gaze so fierce; fearfully locked on my face. She looked at me as if she knew me and her bright eyes told me two things. First, you are my person. Second, why did you let this awful, terrible, scary thing happen to me?
Then, with the cutting of the cord and her first breaths, the long goodbye began.
That tiny human, at first just a few cells inside of me, steps into her sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara this fall. Kind, intelligent, supremely capable but still often fearful. She holds my heart with both hands. And I’m left wondering how the greatest job I’ve ever known involves letting the very best parts of me walk away into a new life.
Amazingly, at only 19, she knows how to appreciate the sacrifices we’ve made for her. She is thankful for her privilege and aware of it too. She knows that to be a student at a UC is to be a person of means, if not of wealth. She knows that money does not bring happiness and she knows that even though she is kind and good her base impulses, like all of ours, tends towards self.
She tells me she is thankful for our parenting. Thankful for hard conversations and for hard life choices. And she emphatically informs me of the aspects of our parenting that she will NEVER repeat with her children. She loves to remind me that she is my favorite child and she is unafraid to inform me of my mistakes. Essentially she is all I dreamed of, all I wanted.
In the early months, when I breastfed her around the clock, walked for miles to stop her colic cries, and barely slept, I never imagined these days, when I would drive away from her. For it seemed then that me-without-her had ceased to exist.
In the early years, when I supported her creativity by allowing her to choose her own outfits (fifteen times a day), leave her hair unbrushed, and paint herself with acrylic colors, I never imagined these days. Days when she would help me to find something more appropriate to wear and encourage me to accept my body as it changes.
In the elementary years, when she carried our African neighbor babies on her back, grew soybeans in her own little garden, and taught English to neighbor friends on our Ugandan porch (after I killed the cobras), I never imagined these days. Days when she would live steps from the beach at one of the best public universities in America.
In her mid teens, when she was sometimes angry or withdrawn, finding anything and everything to disagree with us on, spending as much time away from us as possible – I never imagined these days. Days when she would make special dates with her littlest brother and sister to say goodbye to them before returning to university.
First we hold them tight inside of us. Then we cut the cord and let them breath. Teach them to walk and cheer when they walk away from us. Help them find their voice and feel proud when they disagree with us. Send them to school where they learn to think differently than us. Celebrate their relationships that mold them, that help make them unique from us.
First attachment, what we all dream of when we imagine ourselves as parents. Then, the big leaps of the long goodbye: separation, expansion, differentiation, opposition. Finally, increased responsibility, as our children learn that they can trust themselves, that they can make their own good choices.
So here we are. I’m driving away from her again. Leaving her hundreds of miles from “home.” And she’s hugging goodbye, ready. Fixing me still with her fierce gaze, but this time her eyes are asking, “will you be okay?”
Yes, darling. For this is my ultimate task; my measure of success as a parent. This is what I signed up for when I chose to carry you, birth you, parent you. I chose the long goodbye.