The hardest part of parenting is letting go

JENNY BLOCK | Contributing Writer
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My daughter Hannah just turned 20. People call her my “Mini-Me.” We’re not twins by a long shot. She’s gorgeous — big blue eyes, long blonde hair and the kind of smile that makes it impossible for other people not to smile back. We’ve been attached at the hip since the moment she came out of me and into the world. Still, to this day, she steals my clothes and eats whatever I order and lives for the beach and can’t get enough acai bowls or poké bowls and knows every word to the score of Hamilton and would sooner eat a handful of sand than miss a chance to see Wicked.

We’re also really different. She ice-skated and painted and played volleyball in high school; at the same age, I was all drama club and debate team all the time. She hates to read, which is like a dagger to my retired English professor/career author/writer heart. Speaking of hearts, mine is always on my sleeve, hers, not so much. When she was little, she was as snuggly as could be, and we would both cry at movies and Kleenex commercials. But I couldn’t be any more mushy on all counts, which is just not her M.O.

Hannah just finished her sophomore year at Stephen F. Austin. Freshman year was tough; she joined a sorority and went to a lot of parties and did not do well in her pre-med curriculum. It was really tough for me too. Her dad and I got divorced the day after she graduated high school. Even though it was a long time coming, it was still hard. I moved to Lake Livingston to be with my now-wife while her dad stayed in Dallas where we had moved when Hannah was about to start first grade. So she calls her dad’s place “home” and my house “the lake.”

She stays in North Texas for winter break and all summer long. I get to see her more than he does during the school year since she lives much closer to me when she’s at SFA. But during those long breaks, she goes to Dallas, which is where the nanny jobs and her boyfriend are. I try not to take it personally, but I do. I want her at the lake with me… Not that she wouldn’t drive me crazy and that I wouldn’t drive her crazy if we lived together full-time. But I don’t just love her. I really like her. How heartbreaking that when it finally gets good — when your kid finally becomes a person — they move away.

I consider myself lucky — really lucky actually — that we only had six lousy months when she was actually kind of awful to me. It was her senior year in high school. I wanted to hang out with her like we always did, and she was starting the very natural step of pulling away. But just because it’s natural and honestly quite good for her doesn’t mean it’s easy to take. She even sent me a text one day that read, “You’re my mom. Not my friend.” I think I actually threw up a little. It’s not that I didn’t know that or even know that she felt that way, it just killed me to hear it.

I never set out to make my daughter my best friend or any kind of friend for that matter. I don’t think that would be very healthy. She just happened to be very much like me, and we just happened to spend almost all of our time together. Even though I have always traveled a lot, the preponderance of my time was with her or doing things for her: the doctor-taking, sick-caring, babysitter-hiring, clothes-buying, project-doing, carpooling, costume-making, summer-entertaining, school-volunteering, trip-taking duties of a mom.

As she was growing up, I did my best to keep myself intact. I tried to make mommying only part of my life — a massive part but not the only part. I kept traveling and kept writing and kept up my friendships so that maybe the experience of the empty nest would be less harsh than for the moms who gave up everything for their kids and who were truly moms only.

But it doesn’t work that way. At all.

She’s not mine anymore. She belongs to herself and to the world. And I want that for her, of course, but I also miss her terribly and I want her to choose “the lake” whenever she’s not at school and I want her to want to be with me. I hear how funny that sounds. I guess that means I did at least most of this parenting thing right: I raised a human I actually like and who is striking out on her own as she should. Still, I cry every time she drives away, and I am so excited when she Facetimes me just to talk about stupid stuff.

I made her with my body. She lived inside me for nine months. I nursed her with the milk my breasts made. We’re connected by blood and cells and whatever that magic is that allows women to create humans with their very being. And so a piece of my body is walking out there in the world where I can’t protect it, and I can’t be close to it all the time. There’s a bit of a hole in me, an emptiness that can mostly be filled with the joy and pride I have for who she is and the love I have for her. But like anything that is missing a part, a longing remains.

Mommyhood is hard — totally worth it, but also totally hard. The late nights and the crazy schedules and all of that are a lot, yes. But more than that is the fact that I gave my lifeblood to a new human who I cannot protect from the world every second of every day. All too often, I want to lock her away where no germs or bad guys can get to her. But, alas, that is not allowed.

Instead, I do my best to enjoy every second I do get with her, and I do my best not to worry all of the time. Still, some days, I wish I could turn back the clock whenever I wanted to whatever date I wanted so I could run my fingers over her teeny baby lips or jump in the waves holding her chubby toddler fingers or watch her 7-year-old eyes widen and take in the vast Texas sky as she exclaims, “Oh mommy! Are we in outer space?” or see her turn 11 under the Eiffel Tower wearing a beret and eating a croissant as per her very specific request or watch her watch herself in the mirror when she finally found the perfect prom dress.

The heartache of the empty nest is real, and there is little out there to ease it. Still, I feel grateful for the unparalleled experience of being her mom. And, as hard as it is to have a piece of my heart out there wandering the world, it’s all worth it. Her life is truly my life’s work.