By Dana Gornall
It seems the moment we, as parents, come home from the hospital after giving birth, we are told to begin separating our babies from ourselves.
The birth is often quite bloody and violent, no matter which way it happens. Once two beings as one, suddenly the baby is this separate entity—independent—yet still dependent in every way. Our culture teaches us that from day one, this tiny, needy being must sleep on its own in another room—in another bed, across the hall or up the stairs—so that it can learn autonomy.
As a first time pregnant mother I accepted this.
We registered for a pretty, blonde stained crib from JCPenney, painstakingly put it together in the freshly carpeted and painted nursery, and anxiously awaited for the day our baby boy would call this his room. But something happened that first night after giving birth. As I lay in the dimmed hospital room, sore from the C-section that had occurred almost 24 hours before, I stared at my son sleeping and realized I didn’t want to let go—not even for a night.
It wasn’t long before he had to be introduced to daycare—about two months later to be precise. Up until this point, I had always focused on my career. Suddenly, I was trying to figure out every possible mathematical formula of our budget to stay home. The stars would not align for our lower to middle class incomes, and back to work I went. And my baby boy was thrust into a daycare, filled with children of different ages, an almost complete stranger caring for his daily needs. I was left to a workday filled with people and traffic and a breast pump.
And soon came kindergarten.
We were warned in the parent meeting that sometimes children would cry and beg for parents not to leave. We were instructed to make our goodbyes quick and clear: state that we would be back at the end of the day, that we were so proud of them for being a big boy or girl, that they would have so much fun.
I remember my son tentatively sitting at a desk the first day, picking up a red crayon to color in the picture of the school that was placed in front of him (because schools are always colored red in books and TV shows), and watching me cautiously as I hovered at the door. I told him Pop would be here to pick him up and saw his eyes slightly water as I prepared to leave him here for the day—this strange place with strange children and a teacher he didn’t know.
But that’s what we do; that is what we are taught to do.
I remember his first day of junior high in a new school that was so much bigger than the small Catholic school he was used to. He didn’t want to change schools, but I couldn’t afford the tuition anymore. I assured him he would make friends quickly, but truthfully he didn’t right away. It was a hard adjustment in a new town, in a new house with his parents now living separately. Everything was changing for him and for all of us, but kids are resilient, I was told.
They would adapt, life would change. They needed to learn to accept that life would be unstable at times.
At the end of the school year he asked to go back to the small Catholic school he had gone to before, but one look at my budget and skeletal take-home pay made me realize this wasn’t a possibility. Public school it would continue to be, and so he moved up into high school. This meant new friends, new faces, and kids who had parents I never met.
There were times I fantasized about homeschooling. I looked into co-ops, I dreamed of asking the bank for a loan and opening my own school. People I would mention this to would often look at me like I was crazy. School meant healthy socialization, it meant learning about the world. You can’t trail after your kids forever. They had to be independent.
Graduation came swiftly. Two days before the event, my son and I quarreled about how he would get there, as he wanted to drive himself instead of riding together as a family. This made no sense to me, so I dug in my heels, he dug in his, and finally I let it go. We took two separate cars—the family in one, and he and his girlfriend in his—and we sat in the auditorium watching as they marched into the room with caps and gowns.
It was as if a highlight reel trailed under the inside of my eyelids.
The hospital nursery, daycare, preschool, kindergarten, junior high, high school. Yes, the goal of being a parent is to teach your child how to fly; to spread their wings and watch as they jump from the nest, being there if they hit the ground with a thwack. And, oh did he hit the ground. We all did at times. I foresee maybe a few more hits left in him.
But I do wonder if maybe we focus a little too much on the pushing a little too fast. I wonder if autonomy isn’t built stronger with a more solid foundation from the get-go. Maybe I am overprotective? I have learned to let go, over and over and over again. It’s a hard lesson.
The nest is still here, he is on the edge perched, eyes searching for a target to aim for. I wait anxiously nearby with muddled emotions as he scans the horizon. Separation is imminent—it has been from day one. We adapt, life will change. We learn to accept that life will be unstable at times.
And just like that, our lives spin like a coin flipped onto a flat surface—sputtering around until it settles. It’s strange and unfamiliar as we tread slowly into uncharted territory.
Editor: John Lee Pendall