Those first few nights of being a mother, I set my alarm for every four hours out, full of paranoid panic that if I didn’t, my baby would starve while I slept, zombie-like, in various stages of new parenthood dreams.
My own mother, upon hearing of this particular branch of insanity, had to reassure me again and again that my baby’s lungs were strong and healthy and fully capable of letting me know when she needed to be fed–no phone alarm necessary.
She was right, of course. And Raven didn’t even need to howl in order for me to hear her–it was as if my ears had been waiting for her persistent little yowl all their existence, perfectly tuned to hear the slightest note of distress, my body permanently poised to leap out of bed, to come to the rescue.
As she’s gotten older (and therefore, more mobile), that panicked paranoia has had ample chances to rear up its head and paw the ground.
Watch her near that step!
Don’t let her rip off that plastic!
Keep her away from the ledge!
I often have to remind myself that it’s okay if she falls sometimes. That it’s normal for her to cry occasionally for no reason at all (or, especially, for a good reason). That I have to let her experience things in order to learn and grow and live.
No one ever tells you about how hard that is though–the learning to let go.
Instead, they say–
Sleep when your baby sleeps.
Buy diapers a size up to avoid blowouts.
Don’t worry about the baby weight–nursing will take it right off!
Feed them veggies before fruits–otherwise they’ll never eat them!
The armies of parents stand always at the ready to pass along the tidbits and tricks and lifesaving discoveries that make it possible for you all to survive through another day, another year.
But the emotional territory is a minefield that must be traveled all alone.
Sometimes I catch it in glimpses in other mothers–
Mothers who admit to crying when they drop their child off at kindergarten for the first time,
Moms who post messages of their one-week-old newborn, already willing time to slow down, to let them just hold onto this moment right there forever and ever.
Mothers who are barely holding it together as they bring their infant out of the exam room doors, a colored band-aid on each chubby baby leg and telltale tears in the mom’s eyes.
Parenthood, for me, is a constant study in when to let go and when to hold on. When to firmly scoop her up in my arms and when to let her feel out the edge of that boundary. When to say STOP and when to stay silent. When to steady her balance and when to let her fall down.
Raven had her first real open water experience a few weeks ago when we spent the day at Bear Lake with my family.
Such milestones seem to bring out the flashing warning light worse than anything else, the instant recall of every water tragedy I’ve ever heard of in my whole life springing suddenly to mind.
I am old enough to know that tragedy doesn’t always just pick those who are unprepared or foolhardy or ignorant. I am old enough to know that tragedy can strike anyone, at any time, anywhere.
And it makes me want to cling to my baby and never, ever let go.
But I make myself take deep breaths and remember all the other stories–the stories of times when we let go and there was triumph, when we pushed her forward and there was growth.
I make myself remember that I cannot always be there to prevent every stumble or stop every heartache or make every important decision.
So I need to practice letting go early, so that when those bigger moments come up, I can be ready to let go at just the right second, to push her forward just the right amount.
People tell me it gets a little easier with time. With subsequent kids. With years of experience.
They tell me that one day, you realize that there’s only so much you can (and should) try to prevent and that the rest must eventually be experienced.
So that’s what we did, that day at Bear Lake. We watched her closely so that she was never far from us, never out of our gaze. But we also let her fall down in the water and eat the mud and splash the waves as they endlessly rolled in. We let her squish the sand and make tiny footprints and chase the seagulls.
We held her close. We let her go.
And we’re hoping that if we can learn to strike the right balance, she will always be brave enough to go venture out into the unknown. That she will always know that we are right here when she gets scared. That she is fearless in facing the outside world. That she knows she can always come home.
That we are always in the process of holding her close, and letting her go.