e-mail us

Catholic Education

Learning the fine art of letting them go

What is all this juice and all this joy
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
... Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
(From “Spring,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins)


Parenting, as many a wise mother or father has realized, is about letting go. This is a point that teachers and school administrators, and anyone else who cares for children, understands, too.

Oh, we can hold on to images. I have a few snapshots of each child on my mental desktop: My impulsive middle child at three, chasing butterflies on a sunny day, pure joy on her round face and in her sparkling eyes. My wisp of a 4-year-old on a kitchen stool in her pajamas and an apron, helping her daddy make pancakes. My perfect firstborn calmly lying wrapped in a blanket in the hospital bassinet, his wide-open eyes looking at me, just hours after I finally pushed him into the light. I didn’t want him to change, ever.

As much as I’d like to hold on to the little bodies-and-hearts I cherish so much, parenting is about knowing when to release them. At the same time I’m escorting my pre-preteen son into the waiting wing of adolescence, I’m relinquishing the babyhood of my last child, even though she is still little enough to climb up onto my lap and throw her arms around my neck. My 9-year-old is emerging from the womb of his close and loving family, ready to start testing his own wings. Nowadays I tuck the blanket around him after he’s fallen sound asleep, and I stare at how his long legs and arms fill his twin bed.

Change, they say, is the only constant.

Whether I am ready or not, he is beginning the journey he must ultimately make alone. He is bound to compare himself to others, to observe how they dress, act, walk and talk, and to either make moves to fit in or steel himself for the isolation that comes with choosing not to fit in. I think the hormones are beginning to do their work of changing him from a boy into a man.

I think it’s going to be harder on me than my own adolescence was, because I’m grieving not only the babies they were, but the risks and obstacles -- and the pain --they must begin to face on their own. I’m also grieving the parent I was and hoped to be, and might have been, and will never be again in the same way.

For every moment in the diaper-and-3 a.m.-feeding years when I wished to be free of the never-ending responsibility of caring for babies and toddlers, for interpreting speechless needs and cleaning up appalling messes, there is now a moment when I long for the simplicity of that springtime of parenting, when it was all new and plain to see what was needed. Some say that days seem like years when children are little, and later the years seem like days. I think they’re right.

When do the years become days? When does one stage end and another begin? I never consciously declared, for example, that my 4-year-old didn’t need naptime anymore, but it’s a rarity these days. I’ve been thinking of taking her out of her afternoon day care program and having her home with me; she’s been crying that she “misses Mommy,” and we could enjoy our naptime ritual around which I organized my day for so many years.

Here’s how it went: After lunch, we’d choose a book (or two or three), cuddle up under the covers on Mommy’s bed, and read until we relaxed toward sleep. She’d snuggle into my body as I curled around her, our two selves melding in just being, loving each other and allowing ourselves to be loved as we are, doing nothing but breathing in and out in the liminality of naptime. It was a beautiful ritual, but destined to end.

I think my 9-year-old still seeks that still point, the place where the world is always safe and we are always loved and free to love what we love, to paraphrase poet Mary Oliver. My son is lately obsessed with a secret place he found in a park where we go sledding, a little grove of large evergreens that seems a perfect retreat. He wants to go live there and even began to empty his closet of a few supplies he’d take with him. We talked about what draws him there; he can’t quite articulate it, but I know it is bittersweet.

I suspect it is so beautiful and peaceful that it makes him sad, a perfect retreat from the world as he is beginning to understand: full of conflicting values, tension, meanness and even evil. What I hope he also knows is that the world is also full of beauty and grace in shades of gray that can be hard to discern, and harder still when we must let go of naptimes, still points, secret places.

Growing up is hard for all of us.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000