I’m at the age now when many of my friends are having kids. I get to see babies grow and walk and talk, marveling at how quickly they change. My friends tell me that parenthood is hard, even painful, but also full of joy. I’m happy for my friends, and excited to see their kids grow up. My friends are also excited to see their kids get older, to see them go to school, make friends, and explore the world.
It’s exciting, but also bittersweet. Because as kids get older, parenting changes. When children are young, they rely on their parents as their primary emotional anchors. In fact, it’s natural for parents to serve as their babies’ primary emotional caretakers, just as they serve as their primary physical caretakers. Yet as children get older, their emotional needs become more complex. They enter into worlds that are completely foreign to their parents. They have experiences, emotions, and ideas that they can’t share with their parents, or at least not share fully. It’s not because children don’t love their parents; rather, as kids get older, having their parents involved sometimes makes things more complicated. For parents who are used to having their kids come to them for everything, that’s hard. For parents who taught their kids how to say “Momma, Dadda” to now hear their kids say, “Mom, Dad, I want to tell you what’s going on, but I can’t”…that must be hard.
What’s especially hard is when your kids are going through pain, but you can’t fix it. When your kids are young and they get a cut or feel sad or lonely, they come to you, and you help them feel better. But as they get older, they get cuts and wounds and pain that aren’t yours to heal. In fact, if you get involved, it would only make things harder. So you need to step back and let your kids’ friends and community and partners get involved. In that moment, you can’t help but remember when your kids were first born, when you held them close. Your friend said, “Can I hold them?”, but you hesitated, wondering if your friend will be careful. Now someone else is holding them and drying their tears, and it’s hard for you.
I’ve had to learn this for myself with my parents. I love my parents dearly. And it’s because I love them that I had to learn that they can’t be my sole emotional anchor anymore. I can’t rely on them to give me everything I need, just as I can’t rely on any one relationship to give me everything I need. I still go to my parents, but they are now part of a rich web of other relationships. If I still relied on my parents as my sole source of emotional fulfillment, then that would be a dysfunctional and disastrous relationship.
As kids get older, they need to grow up, but parents need to grow up too. Parents need to learn to let go of their kids. Because one day, sooner than you would like, you won’t be there for them anymore. There will come a day in which they will say, “Mom, Dad, I wish you were here”, and you won’t be able to hear them. You want to make sure that they are ready for that day, that they have friends and community and partners to help them. For one day, you won’t be there as their anchor anymore. On that day, you want them not to sink, but to sail on without you, carried by the love of others.