Fifth grade. It’s impossible to watch my daughter grow and not remember myself at her age. Fifth grade was a turning point. Fourth grade was rotten. Third grade was unremarkable. Second grade was amazing, but little kid amazing. I remember finally feeling like I was growing into myself in fifth grade. Watching my daughter start to navigate this school year I am struck that there is something more than a new year and a new teacher going on. For the first time, I can really see her starting to become the adult she will be someday – not in flashes, but in persistent displays of adult. Grown up. Not little kid.
The first day of fifth grade, my husband and I walked her up to school, like we had every single day of daycare, preschool, and elementary school. Then the ultimatum: we could walk her to the gate, but no farther. Most of the other kids’ parents didn’t drop them off at school, even in third or fourth grade, she explained, so it was time for us to stop too.
Last year this announcement might have stung. Two years ago, my feelings would have been hurt. Three years ago, I would have talked her out of her decision. Now? It was okay. I had been feeling the awkwardness myself. Watched the dwindling parents. Noticed the kids didn’t come and say “Hi Coach Johanna” anymore. Heck, I wasn’t even sure they remembered I was their second-grade soccer coach. In some ways it was a relief. Dropping her off a block from school gave me a chance to get to work on time and avoid the yoga-mom chit-chat after the bell rang.
Two weeks in, a new development. Her friend approached her about biking to school together. So, our routine shifted. My husband or I ride her to her friend’s house, then ride home while Afthead Junior and her buddy head to school. Now I’m out the door to work before school even starts, with a little bit of exercise under my belt, and the girls ride their bikes home alone every day.
I remember the freedom of walking home from school. I remember the fear when a new route creeped me out for some reason, and the joy of taking my time during a nice day or when there was a friend to walk with. I remember watching for mean dogs, like the one in the Ramona Quimby book. When my daughter comes home five minutes later than normal with a big grin on her face I’m happy for her freedom, for her exploration, for her independence. Sometimes she tells me why she’s late, and sometimes she doesn’t. It’s a step toward a more grown up relationship where she shares what she wants, not just because I’m her mom and she’s supposed to.
Heading out for our annual Labor Day camping trip I grabbed my favorite “won’t wash my hair for three days” headband. I pulled it on and heard the little elastic strings woven into the headband fabric snap. The band fell down. In the past year, while I wasn’t paying attention, the elastic had passed on into the land of non-stretchiness.
With my hair askew and my useless headband around my neck it hit me. There are no apron strings between parent and child. At least not in my situation. There is an elastic band holding us together. In the beginning it was tight tight tight. It held her inside me as she grew into a baby. It held her to me when she was an infant and couldn’t walk. The first snappings happened as she toddled away screaming “I can do it.” She needed more space. The band got less and less restrictive as she went off to preschool, kindergarten, elementary school. It was strong enough so that when her friends were mean, her coach yelled, or she failed at school the energy in the elastic always pulled her to me: back to safety and momma.
But now I can feel the elastic slipping. There are less stretchy bits left than non-stretchy bits. What will happen when all the elastic is gone? Will we toss it like a cheap pair of underwear? Like a swimsuit gone see-through and obscene? Will I store it away in some box where it will sit next to baby teeth going to dust, pulling it out occasionally to caress the rotting fabric and reminisce of days when our relationship was simultaneously simpler and more complicated. When I always stood between her and the dangers of the world. Will I brandish it at her when she doesn’t call or doesn’t come home for the holidays demanding she remember what I did for her? Or, will we keep it and use it when we need it? When her boyfriend (or girlfriend) dumps her, will she pull it out and wrap it around us? When her own baby is born will she stretch it around me and her own new elastic band providing an extra layer of support to a new precious life? When I’m infirm and heading to the rat-infested nursing home will she give it to me, so I can clutch desperately to the fragile ties between us? Whatever happens, these long-term connections are a choice, not a given as they were when she was tiny and wee.
Apron strings can be knotted, ripped open, re-typed, or left dangling at will. Our bond has more of an air of inevitability about it. Someday it will not be needed, but I hope it will be wanted. I hope there will always be days when she chooses to ask my advice, spend time with me, or just snuggle up next to me because she finds me a comfort. And I hope I’m brave enough and wise enough to give her the space she needs, letting the elastic continue to stretch to fit our ever-changing relationship.
Last week an early morning rush to band left her frazzled. The week of soccer, running, homework, early mornings, and late nights caught up with her. We’d barely seen each other between our non-coincident commitments. She gathered her trumpet and her backpack and then asked, just outside of school in view of any other early arrival, “Mom, can I have a hug?” I got out and held her while she cried. Then I opened the car door and told her, “Get in. You can practice trumpet at home.” We sat together in the basement, annoying her sleeping dad, while she played for me and pretended to be her band teacher: giving herself corrections and praise. An hour later I dropped her off at school and she ran in with her normal quick hug and “Love you mom.” I watched her turn the corner then drove off to start my own day.