In the late 1970s you could just show up in Washington, DC and declare, "Here I am." No calling ahead. No need for connections or even internships. There was room for everyone. So, one year out of college, I loaded up the back of my Ford Pinto with my meager belongings and headed to DC. Over time, I built a career in advocacy communications. I fell in and out of love. I bought a Capitol Hill condo and my first couch. And then, in 1992, I left Washington.
I didn't go far. Pregnant with a child and hope, I moved across the river to Arlington, Virginia. But the move was more than geographical. Having a baby was a deliberate decision and one I wanted to savor. So I settled into a small brick house in the suburbs, quit my job and decided -- as a single mom -- to devote myself to this small and precious child. In the 1990s, Tiger Moms and Helicopter Moms were still years from being identified. Back then you were either a stay-at-home mom or a working mom. I was neither, or perhaps both. I built up a small consulting business from a spare room of my house and spent entire days marveling at this baby I had created.
Some of my clients were based in Washington so I ventured across the river regularly. But I no longer belonged there. My life was defined by play groups, La Leche meetings, long walks pushing the stroller to the park and attempts to memorize every crease and curl of my beloved daughter. Even then I knew that our time together would be fleeting -- and in an unimaginable time before digital cameras, cell phones or Facebook -- I did what I could to preserve our days.
Hannah's amazing sleeping patterns allowed me to work most of the day until late afternoon when we headed to the park. In the early days, we watched the toddlers playing in the sandbox and the preschoolers who were learning to swing by themselves. Later, she would climb the rusty ladder to the top of the slide over and over, taking my heart and breath with her until she safely swooped into my arms at the bottom of the slide. Once she was tucked in for the night at 6:30, I was free to work until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I earned enough money to sustain us and spent enough time with her to be satisfied.
Parenting is a series of tiny losses. As your child grows and masters the world, she moves farther and farther away from you. It is also the exquisite joy of watching an independent person evolve. Hannah began Montessori school the summer before her third birthday. She fearlessly walked into the school, her backpack secure and her best friend, Bobbie, in her embrace. The director asked the best way to reach me if the need arose. I gave her my phone number -- we lived less than a mile away -- but spent that morning in the parking lot hoping for a glimpse of Hannah on her first day in this new life.
Why are these memories surfacing so raw and fresh now? Because next month my daughter will stride across the stage at DAR Constitution Hall to claim her high school diploma. Despite my best efforts to capture every moment of her childhood, she has so quickly gone from a tiny curly-haired moppet to a lovely, graceful young adult heading off and away. As I left Washington so many years ago, she will be leaving Arlington in the fall to attend Drexel University in Philadelphia.
The world is so much more complicated today than it was in those early days of her life when I had to actually mail photos to relatives and friends. She is in constant contact with her large circle of friends and has a dizzying array of technological tools to communicate with them. But she is forever changed by the stress of 9/11 and our proximity to the attack on the Pentagon. She shivered in fear during the dark days of the DC sniper's assault on our area. And she has lived through more wars in her 18 years than I would have thought possible when I was a child. The past, present and future all collide today in a frenzy of immediacy, without the lag time that buffered us when I was growing up.
Today's ever-present communications tools assess our every move and thought for better or for worse. Today's Tiger Mom may become tomorrow's Gazelle Grandma. What does it all mean anyway? Each choice we make in parenting is individual, based on the best information and resources we have available to us. I chose to table my career because I didn't want to miss a moment of my child's life. I baked dizzying arrays of cupcakes, went on field trips, volunteered to teach second graders about the art of Mary Cassatt and never fretted when an unexpected illness kept my child home from school. Was this the best way to parent a child at the turn of the century? Is there ever a best way?
Even being present for all those years, the time went by in the blink of an eye. Hannah has finished all her AP exams. She's selected a university and a major. She has one last summer at home before heading out the door, but her gaze is already to the future. Perhaps the best thing I can say about my stint rearing a child is that I am so very proud of the adult she has become. Whether through nurture or nature, she possess all the qualities that make her a kind, loving, smart and empathetic woman. The abandoned violin lessons, occasional temper tantrums and inability to maintain any semblance of order in her bedroom seem hardly worthy of note now.
I look forward to all the milestones that lie ahead for my darling daughter and for the journey of self-discovery that awaits her. I hope the world will be as generous to her as it has been to me. And I hope that in a few months, when I begin sending out resumes, the Washington of my younger days will once again embrace me. I've learned you can't have it all, at least not all at once. But life is long and affords many opportunities and choices. The embodiment of the decisions I've made will walk across the stage in late June, in a cap and gown. And then she will move on to her next adventure, as will I.
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