Mostly we forget that, as parents, the purpose of our role is to get our children ready to leave us.
When they’re babies or toddlers it’s easy to avoid thinking about this eventuality. After all, there are diapers to change, puzzles to solve, balls to bounce, and finger paint to squish on white paper. Who has time to ponder the future when our babies are not in our sight all day, every day?
But then they do go, to day care or preschool, then off to the big kids’ school where they are on their own most of the day. What they do with their time remains a mystery, even to the parent of the most garrulous preteen.
When they’re not with me, my concerns are pretty basic. I wonder if they are safe, behaving, making friends, having fun, learning a few things along the way. That’s pretty much it.
None of us want to see our kids in pain. Some of the hardest times for me are the times I see one of my kids struggle with his or her peers. And I’m sure it’s not even a struggle for them, since most of the time they work it out. But for me it’s a struggle, agonizing to watch.
Once, when Mitzi was about 18 months (mentally going on 14 it seemed to us sometimes), she approached a group of much older girls — 8 or 9 year olds, maybe — on a near-empty school playground. Never shy or afraid, Mitzi walked right up to them, uttering her usual “Hi guys!” and waited for their welcome. Either they didn’t hear her or they dismissed her. She waited, shifting from foot to foot, for a response, her easy smile fading to confusion and then disappointment. After a few minutes she headed for the slide, and almost instantly her sadness disappeared.
I, on the other hand, was seething as I watched. I wanted to yell at those girls, “Look at my baby! Don’t you see her! Answer her! Be nice!” Instead, of course, I rocked baby Cooper and cried a little inside. Mitzi hasn’t stopped being friendly because of it, but I clearly haven’t forgotten.
Then today, as we dropped the big kids off at nursery school, I wilted a little again. Normally, I walk them to the school door, Cooper dashes inside to hang up his back pack, then is off to the playground with barely a glance or a goodbye for us. Mitzi starts in the same fashion, but has to come back once or twice for goodbye kisses. Today, though, as I pulled away after our goodbyes, I saw her sitting by herself, kicking at the dirt, looking at the dust fly in the air, ignoring the happy screams of the kids around her. So I stopped to watch. Was she sad because we didn’t do the extra kisses? Because Miss Heather shooed the kids into the playground so fast? Because she didn’t see any of her friends? Because her friends didn’t want to play with her? I sat in the idling car for a few minutes, then decided it was ridiculous. Not only was I blocking the road, Ellie and Joanna needed to get home for naps and, likely, my often-moody 4 1/2 year old was pouting over something (real or perceived) and would get over it in her usual speedy fashion. I reassured myself that her teacher was there to help her solve a problem, if one existed. That’s part of why Mitzi is in preschool. She has other adults and resources to help her, to teach her, to open new doors for her. I mean, I could’ve parked, rushed into the playground, cuddled her, and tried to help her feel better, but that would’ve been insane. So the babies and I went home.
And that’s when I realized — not for the first or last time — that my kids are bound to leave me one day. I’m sure they will always need me in the way that I need my own mother (gee, it’s time for our daily call!), but not in the way they did a year, two, three ago.
And that’s what the point of parenting, is, I guess, the primary part and, I’m learning, one of the hardest parts too. I want my kids to be independent, to be strong, confident, unafraid of life’s challenges, resourceful. But a little bit of me wishes they didn’t have to grow up to do it.