by Jessica Goudeau
The moment snuck up on me. All the kids I know have been mouthy and moody (do they put something in the water at school? Teachers are saints). It’s all we can do to take care of the details every day—snacks for parties, props for talent shows, permission slips for end-of-year field trips. We’ve lost library books and found them again and lost the next round. If we get all the teachers’ gifts together, it will be a miracle.
Our oldest daughter is leaving 5th grade and starting middle school next year and in the midst of the end-of-year tasks, she’s been trying to figure out what she wants to do (read: WHO she wants to be) in the 6th grade. Is she more band or choir, more art or dance? We’ve analyzed and imagined and tried on and thought about every possible angle. I thought, in fact, that I was doing a rather good job of managing my emotions about her going to middle school.
She’s ready, I thought. I’m ready. This will be great. We’re going to love this stage.
It’s one of my biggest pet peeves in parenting. An older parent will come up to you in the grocery line or at the park and make an offhand comment: “Oh, I miss these years! Just wait till they’re teenagers!” It started when they were babies and it’s carried on, every few months, in all of that time.
I know that some parents reveled in the early years, but I did not. I mean, my babies were precious and I adored them, but I wasn’t always sure what to do with them. I would tell my other friends this and they would laugh at me, but it made so much sense in my mind. Each year my kids have gotten older, I’ve loved it more. I love seeing who they are and who they’re becoming, listening to their fantastic, weird little brains, seeing the quirky things they think about.
I determined the 900th time I heard that comment that I would never say it to parents of younger kids. I tell the people in my life all the time that I love my kids more every day. I know we don’t have teenagers yet, but I honestly think we’re going to do great.
Maybe it’s because of my frustration with the fear of teenagers that I’ve often been the opposite of many parents I know: I don’t cling too much to the past. I hold on to important mementos and look back at old pictures with nostalgia, but I also remember the tantrums and diapers and sleepless nights and thoroughly enjoy where we are now.
Which made that moment such a surprise to me.
We were at Sea World, on the 5th grade trip this school takes every year. We hadn’t been back for a few years (not since ‘Blackfish’; they’ve made some changes since then). Our oldest daughter has been confident since she was 4 that she wanted to be a Marine Biologist. Her room is full of art prints of dolphins and whales and can tell you more facts about any ocean animal that you would ever care to know.
We were tagging along with a group of girls, all in matching t-shirts, and I was looking at the schedule to make sure we’d be on time to the next event, when I saw her looking at the dolphin tank in wonder.
And suddenly, she was 4 again.
It was a visceral experience. I saw her in front of me, all long legs and arms and hip hairdo she did herself, laughing and chatting with her friends.
But I also saw her as she had been at 4, with a belly that stuck out over her shorts, and chunky legs that couldn’t walk too far, and hair that was just long enough for pigtails. She had gazed in wonder at the dolphins swimming in front of her and fallen in love immediately. We could barely peel her away. She wanted to stay forever.
Now, she looked at them for a few minutes, and then turned to follow her friends to the next exhibit.
I was overcome. Where did those years go? I could still smell the summer scent of sunscreen and citronella and the lavender shampoo we used in those years, still feel her in my arms as I held her on my hip and turned to go, her arm wrapped around my shoulder as she turned her head back to see the dolphins. She had a favorite pair of duck sunglasses she insisted on wearing that summer; she had a pink and purple hat she could never keep on her head and that didn’t always fit over her pigtails. We pushed her and her baby sister in a big double stroller that was cumbersome. There was a dark stain on the blue plaid seat we could never quite remove.
That summer and this summer blended together and I can’t remember what happened, that my toddler girl should become this almost-teenager. That was seven years ago. In seven years, she graduates from high school.
This is the how-to I don’t think any parent truly knows how to do, not really. Sure, they may have tips—I do, sometimes. But it’s not something you can ever really prepare for.
Time passes and things change and it’s how the world works. But when it’s your child—when you can see the moments when they hover between baby and adult—time takes on new meaning.
That moment humbled me and taught me I still don't really know how to let my children grow up, how to let go as the years pass. Some days I’m better at it that others. Mostly I don’t embarrass them with my nostalgia; most days, I truly feel grateful for where we are.
I know we need to figure out along the way how to let them go. I see other parents I know who I don’t think have done a good job of this, who have emotionally stunted the kids they adore by over-helping or overshadowing. I desperately do not want to do that; because I love my girls so much, I want them to be able to be independent, to know their minds, to know who they are and what they’re capable of by the time they leave our house. It may be complicated, but I love them enough to be glad that they’re figuring out the world around them.
But I’ll never claim it’s easy. Knowing how to love and simultaneously let go—that’s the heart of parenting well.
It’s also one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Co-founders Jonathan and Jessica Goudeau started Otter Pass to provide tools for intentional dads. Learn more about their products, the story behind their company, and why 10% of their sales will always go toward supporting refugees in Austin.