It is a worn out story at my house: the one where I confess to the crying jag that occurred when my first child was three days old. My husband came in the room and asked, “Are we happy?”
It was hard for him to know during those first few days of parenthood whether I was crying from joy, exhaustion, frustration, or some mysterious cocktail of all three, so he knew to proceed with caution.
“She’s going to get her driver’s license!” I wailed, sobbing anew, holding all 7lbs, 12oz closer and staring at the curve of her impossibly perfect and inconceivably fragile head. In the midst of worrying about a healthy pregnancy, a safe delivery, and a predictably happy outcome, it had never occurred to me that something could happen to her once she was here. Or, more accurately, it hadn’t occurred to me as anything but an abstraction.
But now here she was, utterly dependent on me and her father for food, shelter, and safety. I knew I wouldn’t be able to protect her from the small dangers that loomed ahead in childhood: the massive bump on her forehead she earned while learning to stand right before her first birthday, the stitches in her elbow when she was ten, the broken heart when the coveted part in the musical didn’t come her way. But how could I possibly protect her from the big ones? SIDS. Leukemia. Genetic disorders. Getting behind the wheel of a car. For the most part, the “big” dangers were amorphous and hypothetical; possible, but statistically unlikely. But driving had hard edges of glass and steel. Imagining her getting into a car and driving away from me was emblematic of everything that terrified me about parenthood.
My husband smoothed back my hair and kissed my forehead.
"Yep," he said with a soft chuckle. "If we do this right, she's going to do lots of things."
I soon learned that being a parent requires living in that odd space between holding on and letting go. “Life is,” as Linda Loman famously said, “a casting off.” I remember the first time I got in the car and drove away from my daughter--when she was three days old and I left her with her grandmother for less than an hour. I also remember her marching away from me to preschool, riding away from me on her bike, getting onto a plane without me. Soon, I will watch her drive away.
Fortunately, I have made friends with that nearly imperceptible tightness I feel in my chest when she’s off doing something new or with someone I don’t know. Often, I don’t feel it until it eases: when she walks in the door and flops onto the couch, or ditches her backpack on the kitchen counter, or leaves her shoes at the door and tosses a “Hi, Mom,” over her shoulder as she pounds up the stairs.
As I sat in the waiting area while she took the test for her temporary driver’s permit last week, I didn’t know what to hope for. Part of me wanted her to fail so I’d have proof that she wasn’t ready, wasn’t mature enough, didn’t know as much as she thought she did. Then I would have an excuse to make her wait. But as I sat there, I found instead that I had started to hope she would pass. When she did, she didn’t stop grinning for the next two hours, and I found myself grinning along with her, right through my terror and worry and love. Besides, she's not going anywhere just yet--not with out me or her father beside her. When she does, she'll be ready, even if I'm not.