Mothers and Sons and Letting Go
A few weeks ago, I stood on a pier at first light, watching my 28-year-old son Todd and his friend Joe back their 42-foot sailboat out of its slip and into the current of the Black River—the beginning of a two-year, dream-come-true, round-the-world sailing adventure. While the guys launched themselves into the future, I slipped into memories of the past. I knew it was a confident, competent, and independent young man standing at the helm smiling and waving good-bye, but what I saw in my heart was a quiet, quirky, tow-headed little boy.
the boat pulling out of the dock
On my fortieth birthday Todd—then thirteen—gave me a miniature troll doll wearing a t-shirt that said, “Forty isn’t old if you’re a tree.” On my forty-third birthday he gave me a card that read, “I know you feel like you’re getting old, but cheer up, it could be worse”—and then on the inside—“you could be pregnant!” Along with letters and cards from other family members and close friends, I have stashed Todd’s gifts of twisted humor in a cardboard box on an upper shelf in my closet. Also in the box is a Melmac plate decorated with Todd’s preschool-sized handprint, and a black-and-white spotted ceramic cow turned into a refrigerator magnet. He gave me the cow for Mother’s Day when he was four years old. One day in a fit of mommy frustration I slammed the refrigerator door and the magnet crashed to the tile floor and shattered. Todd was in another room when it happened, but I knew as I picked up the pieces that it could just as easily have been his heart I had broken. I stuck all the pieces back together with a mix of Krazy Glue and tears, and for years I left the cracked cow on the refrigerator to remind myself how easy it is to hurt those we love the most.
Not all Todd’s gifts to me are in the keepsake box. The little round table with the cut-glass top and the copper tubing legs, which he and his sister Shauna made for me several years ago, sits against a wall in my bedroom. The Leatherman Micro I requested from him one Christmas is in the plastic make-up case I carry in my purse. The custom grill he installed on my Ford Ranger pick-up is, well, on the front of the truck—though I no longer own it. (Hey Mom, I ordered a new grill for your truck. Why? Don’t I like the one I have? No, Mom, you don’t like that one at all. Okay.) Sometimes he has gifted me with acts of service. For one birthday he wired a sound system and set up a CD player for me in our living room; rarely have I enjoyed a gift more.
I like talking trucks and sound systems with Todd. When he tells me I ought to go four-wheeling in Utah or consider sub-woofers in the living room, I momentarily think of myself as his peer rather than his middle-aged mom. But that fantasy lasts as long as a hiccup, then I’m back to being a mom—which I enjoy, except for the letting go part.
Letting go. Why is it that throwing your arms around your kids and hanging on for dear life is a whole lot easier than releasing them? We work so hard to raise our kids, you’d think we parents would be delighted when it’s finally time to take a breather; but no, we want to keep those little tadpoles in our safety net forever. Only an unnatural force of will allows us to set their shimmering little selves free. I shouldn’t make it sound like every parent does this. Maybe it’s just me. I did read in a personality book that people of my stripe tend to be linked to their children “with almost a psychic symbiosis.” (Please Understand Me, p. 172) While I prefer to think that describes a uniquely sensitive, soulful, and mutually beneficial bond, it may just mean I border on the over-connected side of things. Fine. Did they have to make it sound like something from a psycho-thriller?
At the bottom of one of the cards Todd gave me he wrote: “Thanks for letting me grow up.” I knew why he wrote those words. Months earlier, he had flown with a friend to California to take a sailing class. When I dropped him off at O’Hare, I wanted to wait at the airport until his plane took off. My husband was out of the country and I was driving straight to Michigan from the airport. I knew O’Hare well enough to know that not every scheduled flight actually leaves. What if Todd got stranded? What if he had to reschedule his flight? What if he had to go home and come back later? There would be nobody at home to call.
“I can handle it, Mom,” he said. “If something goes wrong, I’ll figure out what needs to be done and I’ll do it. This isn’t a big deal.” I knew he was right; I was clinging. So I left. But during the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Michigan I pondered that scene at the airport. Why, I wondered, did I feel so compelled to hang on to Todd? To protect him? When I got to Michigan I wrote him a letter that he received in California on his sixteenth birthday. I told him far more than any teenager would ever want to hear, but I figured if I had to torture my heart over his precious little head the least he could do was hear me out.
I told him that when a woman gives birth to a child, she knows that child is literally dependent on her for life. If she doesn’t feed and clothe it, if she doesn’t make sure it gets adequate sleep, if she doesn’t teach it not to run in the street or put its hand in a flame or drink Draino it will die. As the child gets older and learns to look before crossing the street and avoid the hot stuff and drink grape soda, the mother hovers less and less; the growing child needs increasing independence and the mother must gradually grant it (the key word being gradually). But then something awful happens in high school. The move toward independence jumps into high gear as the teenager rushes fast and furiously into adulthood. The mother who was responsible for giving that child life and then protecting it (actively, passionately, with utter devotion) is suddenly supposed to sit meekly in her rocking chair with her hands folded and smile sweetly while she whispers, Have at it, kid. I’m not sure that’s exactly how I said it in the letter, but that was the general idea.
I told Todd I was proud of his strength and his sense of responsibility and that I wanted to free him to enjoy his independence, but that I was a slow learner. Sometimes I looked at him and I saw the little boy whom it was my job to protect, and at those moments letting go seemed impossible; it was like chopping myself in half. I once read that one of the results of giving birth is that for the rest of her life a woman lives with her heart walking around outside her body. It’s true. So sometimes I squeeze more tightly at the very moment I should be relaxing my grip. I asked Todd to forgive me and to bear with me as I practiced this part of being a mom.
Letting Todd go is something I have had to do in layers—and he has not made it easy. I don’t mean he’s been irresponsible or even insensitive to my concerns (though I do think it would be considerate for him to hunker down in an easy chair with a good, safe book every now and then; would that be too much to ask?). The problem is that since toddlerhood he has had an irrepressible urge to hurl his lanky body in the direction of one life-threatening activity after the next. He loves speed, whether he’s skimming across a lake in a boat, leaning into a mountain curve on a motorcycle or riding a wave in the California surf. Though he has suffered fewer bruises and breaks over the years than I might have expected, his body has not gone unscathed.
One Saturday afternoon Bill and I received a call from the emergency room of a hospital in Vail, Colorado. Todd was found unconscious on a ski slope. The doctor could not yet give us a diagnosis, but if we stayed near the phone he’d call us back when he knew something definite. If we stayed near the phone? Where else did he think we’d be while our son was potentially near death in an emergency room hundreds of miles away?
Shortly after we received the doctor’s call, Bill had to go to church and speak at the Saturday evening service. He sat in the front row with his cell phone on, hoping I would call with good news from the doctor before he had to speak. I did. A CAT scan revealed Todd had a concussion. That was disturbing, but minor compared to what he might have suffered. Still, I assumed that it would be at least a week or two before he got back on his snowboard. (Actually I was hoping for a year or two.) But the doctor had already informed Todd that if he felt okay the next day, he could start carving grooves in the snow again—and he did.
A year later, Todd graduated from high school in January. Finishing a semester early gave him a few months to play before starting his summer job, so he decided to stay with Shauna in Santa Barbara, California, where she was living in an apartment and attending college.
He left at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. In Illinois, in January the sky is pitch black at 7 a.m. It was also bitter cold and a heavy snow had fallen during the night with more on the way. He was pulling a ski boat behind his truck, with a motorcycle and two mountain bikes jimmied into the bed of the truck, and a skateboard and snowboard padded and packed in the bow of the boat. He planned to take the northern route through Colorado in order to visit a friend on the way, but if the weather got too bad he would drop down to a southern route. I had already voted for the southern route but nobody was counting votes.
Between the orange cab lights on the roof of the truck and the red tail lights on the rear of the trailer was a dimly lit expanse of metal and fiberglass that looked way too much like the rig a burly forty-five-year-old trucker should be leaving home in. What on earth was my pony-tailed, Birkenstock wearing, seventeen-year-old son doing in that driver’s seat on a winter morning? This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, I kept thinking. When your son leaves home for the first time he’s supposed to be heading for college with a stereo and a few blankets in the trunk of a used Ford Taurus, not charting an uncertain route through the mountains in a blizzard manhandling 10,000 pounds on fourteen wheels.
For weeks I had been trying to prepare myself for this moment, knowing there was far more emotion surrounding his leaving than I could handle in one brief exit scene. If I didn’t let it out in spurts along the way, I’d burst my heart standing right there on the curb. So I wandered in and out of his room. Spurt. Fingered the prom garters and plastic model cars on his dresser. Bigger spurt. Baked oatmeal cookies and put them in the freezer. Half a spurt. Co-signed on his checking account. Spurt. Bought him new sheets and a light quilt (then I remembered he didn’t even have a bed). Spurt. Spurt. Washed eighteen loads of t-shirts. Spurt. Dried them. Spurt. Folded them. Spurt. Folded more of them. Spurt.
And suddenly I wasn’t spurting anymore. My darn heart was shooting a steady stream.
It struck me as I went through my various letting go rituals that I had lived for twenty years with a delusion—a defense mechanism designed to insulate me from the unbearable thought that something awful might someday happen to my kids. The delusion went like this: If I love my kids deeply enough I will be able to protect them from all harm. I don’t mean I consciously believed this. But somewhere deep in the mushy places of my mother love I pretended it was true. I remember an image that often came to my mind when my children were little: that even if they got desperately ill, if I held them tightly enough the power of my love could infuse life and health and strength straight into their little bodies. I knew in my head this wasn’t true. I knew it was irrational. But I let it sit there in that place between my heart and my mind where it buffered me from the truth—and I was grateful for it.
But as Todd prepared to leave for California, my comforting delusion slipped out of its little wedge and I got a brief but undeniable view of my own powerlessness. It took me awhile to see the delusion. At first I just saw that Todd was moving outside the realm of my protection. I wouldn’t be able to see him. Wouldn’t know exactly where he was. Wouldn’t be able to keep everything in order around him so he would be safe. Only gradually did I admit that I had never been able to keep him safe, not really. I had just thought I could because my irrational belief had been so little tested. I worried and fretted and loved and prayed and thought that somehow that kept him safe. But I never really had that much power.
Several months later Todd came home from California in one piece, but he decided to return there for college. So during the next four years, Todd drove thousands of miles back and forth, through snow-covered mountains and windswept deserts, and every time, I held my breath until he reached his destination.
After college he started—then sold—a trucking and towing company. He worked at our church for several years, overseeing a large office move and the complex installation of high-tech production equipment in a new auditorium, and then helping to restructure the high school student ministry and to develop young leaders. He enjoyed all those nice, safe, reasonable jobs, but I knew they wouldn’t hold his attention forever. I wasn’t surprised when, during a Thanksgiving vacation, he and his friend Joe decided to quit their jobs in youth ministry, rent out their houses, sink their savings into a boat, and head for the trade winds.
When I tell friends about Todd’s two-year sailing adventure, the mothers among them always respond the same way. Aren’t you terrified? And I always say the same thing: I was. But now I’m so excited I can hardly stand it.
The week before the boys left I created a complex letting go ritual: I made fitted sheets for their boat bunks. The thing about mattresses in boat bunks is that because they hug the curving contours of the boat hull, there’s not a straight line or a right angle in them. A fitted boat bunk sheet is an engineering marvel. Since I’m not an engineer, I had to make up what I lacked in skill with plain old hard work and experimentation. My friends kept asking, “Are the sheets done yet?” and I had to tell them that despite my hours of work I felt like I had just begun. They thought I was complaining about the challenge, but I wasn’t. On the contrary, I needed it. With every stitch I moved a bit further from terror and a bit closer to excitement.
No mother wants to think of her child battling unknown seas, whether figurative or literal. But what I know in my mother’s heart is that nothing could be more true to who Todd is than this trip. His experience as a boater, his unique gift of problem solving, his love of a physical challenge, and his need to step outside the confines of his “normal” life to let God do something new within him all come together in this adventure.
While Todd was still in high school, my daughter left for college. I asked a friend who was president of a college for advice on being a good “college parent.” He said that kids whose parents hold on too tightly—who call every day or constantly repeat how much they miss them and wish they were home—these kids never feel like they’ve “gotten away” emotionally no matter how many miles separate them from their parents. Some of them spend the rest of their lives trying to create the necessary emotional distance. But kids whose parents let them go emotionally are free to “return”—to re-engage as separate adults in a mutual, loving relationship with their parents. For me, someone given to “psychic symbiosis” with my kids, I took my friend’s words to heart. Let them go, I kept telling myself, so they can be free to return.
Both my kids went to college in California. Both returned to the Chicago area. Neither of them stayed here—not physically anyway. But in a healthy way, I think they returned emotionally, and that connection remains no matter how many miles separate us now. And so I follow Todd’s trip on the map and on his website, loving him, praying for him, and yes, worrying about him, but with every concerned thought, as with every stitch in his blue sheets, I let him go again and anticipate his return.