Ever since a technician spread cold gel on my belly and showed me a glimpse of my first baby—now midway through high school—fluttering in fluid on a screen, I was all in for the wildest flight of my life. Despite vague awareness that in a few months she’d be tearing open my narrow pelvic canal, I swooned over her little organs, muscles, hormones and limbs and pledged my heart to her forever.
Rip out of me she did. And so did her younger brother and sister in years after. But If I thought that hurt, I was clueless of the pain and worry to come when I’d have to stand back while they fly out of my sight or push their own way out of struggle.
Maybe the world was a safer, kinder place back when I was a kid. Or maybe because I’m number eight of nine kids and my parents simply didn’t have the energy to micromanage. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me my parents stood back with ease, giving me room for my wings to unfold and fortify starting at an early age.
The summer before I turned six, I launched a part-time rock business. Faint memories of collecting pebbles from my family’s driveway with my friend Kiki still linger like the haze of an early morning mist. We’d load the rocks into an ice cream bucket and onto a wagon with plans to propagate gravel throughout the land.
I picture us in our pigtails pulling the wagon down our rural street, around the corner, even past a couple stop signs, calling out in unison “wocks fo sale” with a sense of adventure as bright as the sun.
You know what doesn’t linger in that memory? Adult supervision.
In reality, we probably only went a few blocks. Even so, I hate to be a joy-kill, but no way on God’s green Earth would I have allowed my kids at that age to pull a wagon around a corner, out of sight, on their own.
What if one of the wheels fell off? What if a tree fell on them? What if a stranger lured them into his car? What if nobody wanted to buy the rocks and they crumbled to the curb in disappointment?
By the time I was 7 or 8, I was allowed to walk around the local mall by myself for an hour with a couple bucks in my pocket. By the time I was 14, I was biking on the shoulder of a busy road to apply for my first job. By the time I was 16, I was living abroad for a year as an exchange student.
Why then does the thought of my own children out of my sight, navigating their way in out of potential strife throughout the land provoke a lump of anxiety in my gut as big as The Rock of Gibraltar?
Soon my oldest will be parading behind campus tour guides. My middle one has acoustics coming out of him as low as a humpback whale. My youngest is beginning to experiment with mascara. And still, it’s excruciating for me to think about the umbilical cord between us getting snipped.
Will they be warm enough? Did she remember her water bottle? Is he okay? Is he sure? Do they have enough friends? Will she find a place to sit at lunch? What if their college roommates aren’t good matches?
Despite still feeling like a girl in pigtails pulling a wagon of rocks, I’ve managed to raise three kids who seem happy, take initiative, treat others with respect, and no longer have thrashing tantrums on the floor of furniture stores. But hardly a week goes by that my insides don’t tear a little as I watch them turn a corner out of my sight or persevere their way through inevitable growing pains.
While wondering in a pit of gravel recently, or I guess you could call it a crater of concern, a pothole of panic, I came across a shiny little nugget that I picked up, turned around, and put in my wagon. A piece of parenting wisdom that stood out to me among all the others.
It’s a story about a little boy who finds a caterpillar and receives permission from his mom to keep it as long as he takes good care of it. He gives it shelter and fresh plants to eat. One day the caterpillar spins itself into a shiny chrysalis in which, the boy learns from his mother, a miraculous transformation is taking place.
When it’s time for the boy’s little pet, now a butterfly, to break free of the chrysalis, the boy finds it struggling to fit through the small opening. So the boy decides to “help” by cutting open a wider opening, and the butterfly easily emerges. But instead of his wings opening up like the other butterflies, his wings remain curled up and shriveled.
You see, the butterfly was supposed to struggle. Pushing its way out of the chrysalis is what strengthens the butterfly’s wings and gets the blood flowing so that it can fly. The opportunity to do so is the greatest gift the boy could’ve given it.
Fortunately, my children are still pupas—that stage between larva and adult in which miraculous growth and change are taking place. Most likely, standing back while they flutter out of sight or push their own way out of confining spaces will always be a grueling endeavor for me. But the image of a butterfly emerging with wings ready for flight is helping me pause before rushing in.