THE BLOG
04/13/2013 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2013

In This Fragile Sacred Space

This fall, my youngest son will be heading off to college, a reality that hit me full force yesterday as the two of us met on the phone with his financial aid adviser. I'd already been stung by the other realities of our call. Paying for college these days is serious business and despite my wishful thinking, the numbers were not arranging themselves into a pretty picture. But it was somewhere in the middle of the "options for repayment" part of our conversation that I looked at my son and felt an internal seismic shift, a mini-quake of conflicting emotions. He didn't notice. He wasn't looking at me. He was listening intently (or faking it, which is one of his super powers), but in that moment, the reality of his imminent departure took my breath away. The voice of the financial aid adviser droned on reassuringly, but it didn't matter; the sudden roller coaster lurch of my stomach had nothing at all to do with money.

I've been thinking about it a lot lately, this dance we humans are forever engaged in, the one in which all the steps are either about holding on or letting go, and the most complicated (beautiful) sequences of all involve doing both at the same time.

It is inevitable that over time, more and more of what we do as parents becomes centered around the art of letting go. It's hard. For all of my sons' lives, I've been their guide, holding their hands, taking them on adventures, telling them what I think about, what I believe, what I know. But this week, I combed through the college admittance paperwork of one son, and helped the other move into an apartment three cities away. However I may feel about it, they're not boys anymore. They're young men standing on the edge of what I hope will be their big beautiful lives, their futures unfurling before them like wide open highway.

These days, their adventures rarely include me, and my job as mom isn't to hold their hands. My job now is to feel their acceleration, their hunger for flight... and let go. (Even just writing that makes me feel uneven, the dance of my stomach at the roller coaster's top, the pause before the inevitable plunge.) I'm excited for all that lies before them, and I ache for all I won't see because this is the part they have to do on their own. Like I did. Like we all do.

While I was working on this piece, I read the beautifully honest and provocative post by Jennifer Gilmore, "What Is Motherness?" Gilmore is the new mother of an adopted son, and she wonders how it is different for her than it is for mothers who give birth to their children; she wasn't pregnant for nine months, doesn't need to physically recover, isn't now breastfeeding. Her questions around "motherness" are tender and searching and as I read them, I thought, "I'm here on the other end of the parenting spectrum asking the same thing. Only my question goes, what is 'motherness' now?"

On the day my son and I met with the financial aid adviser, my mother and I traded emails about my father's upcoming knee surgery. My mom doesn't drive anymore, so we were working out the logistics of my getting them to the hospital, bringing them home, and then maybe being available for a week or so while he recuperates.

My parents' world grows smaller all the time. My father is nearly deaf now, and my mother has had two eye surgeries so far, with more to come. My parents hurt more now, they move more slowly. Things they used to do easily take longer and, more and more often, are just not worth the trouble. My father watches closed caption television and reads books. My mother goes through their possessions, room by room, sorting them out, asking me and my brothers what we want, donating the unclaimed. I feel their deceleration, their narrowing focus, and I think my job now as daughter is to hold on a bit tighter, be the grownup they raised me to be.

It's confusing and natural and heartbreaking and beautiful -- all of us here, paused, at the top of our roller coaster, in this fragile, sacred space between holding on and letting go.