Back to school and learning to let go

Bonnie Willis's picture

My oldest daughter started middle school last week, and it felt like kindergarten all over again.

It was just a week before that we were both full of excitement and expectation, as we shopped for new clothes and school supplies, and imagined how her middle school would be different from elementary school.

Now, that first day has come. I dropped her off, and all the kids went into the school gym. Due to the school closures, the school had grown to nearly 1,000 students, and our little girl was definitely a little fish in a much bigger pond.

I dropped her off, but I stood outside in the hallway (along with other cautious parents) and tried to “spy” out how she would adjust to the new environment.

Would she see her friends? Would she be sitting with them? Would she make new friends right away? Would she fit in? Would she thrive? So many questions filled my heart at this new stage of her life.

It was at that moment when it suddenly dawned on me: not only was she entering a new stage in life, but so was I.

I could no longer visit her classroom and volunteer as the homeroom mom. No longer could I bring in cupcakes for her birthdays and organize classroom parties.

In a very real way, I knew she was growing up and this was another step in her growing more self-sufficient. But I don’t think I was ready for it.

The school seems so much bigger, her challenges seem so much greater, and as I stood there in the hallway staring at her, she seemed so small in this brave new world. I wanted to walk into that gym and sit next to her, talk with her, hold her hand, and let her know how proud I was of her.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because I knew this was a major step in her becoming the responsible young woman she will be. And, as much as it hurts to let go in this way, I knew she was ready for it — even if I wasn’t.

After a few more minutes of “spying,” I left the school hallway, walked back to my car, and sat there for a while before driving off to work.

My heart ached for my not-so-little girl, and the thought occurred to me that if this is my reaction to my daughter going off to middle school, how in the world am i going to handle her going off to college? How do all the parents, who proudly displayed graduation banners this past spring, deal with the ache of sending their child off to college? How do they fight off the fear and the pain of having their child so far away, even if it is only an hour or two?

I suppose they have taken the baby steps that I am learning to take right now. Perhaps they have had to let go a little at a time, and watch their once baby girl, or boy, blossom with each stage, whether kindergarten, middle school, high school or college.

And maybe they are feeling conflicted in the way that I do — not wanting to have their child leave, because they are all too aware of the challenges they will face in college.

But I think this is all a part of the process of being a parent: learning to hold on and guide our children as they make transitions from childhood into adulthood, given all the very real dangers in our society.

Yet, we also have to learn to let go so that they are, not so much independent, but responsible and self-sufficient. This seemingly paradoxical process will take place, whether we like it or not.

I only hope that remembering the successes as our children transitioned through earlier phases of their lives will ultimately prepare us for these difficult moments.

I imagine that when my daughter goes off to college one day, I will still be dying emotionally inside, having similar feelings of excitement and expectation.

But I will communicate to her the confidence I have that she will do great — even if I do feel like walking into that gym of life and hold her hands.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]

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