Parenting is a dance. Being a child is, too. Together, we’re always testing something new, holding on, letting go, checking-in, checking-out, moving closer and further away every day. The trick is to stay connected – not too tight, not too loose – listen to the music, feel the rhythm, trust the flow. Let go. Come back together again.
By third grade, I’m beginning to see there are only a few parents still hovering near our children in their lines before school – some Brownie leaders, a few adoptive parents, and some others whose handy labels I haven’t yet discerned. Why do we stay? Are we lingering to chat with each other, to provide security to our kids, or because we can’t quite – yet – let go?
“Do you want me to stay ‘til your line goes in?” I suddenly ask my daughter when we reach the blacktop behind her school. There is a name for parents like me: Helicopter Parent.
She whips her head around, her eyes holding mine with an attention she hasn’t given me for days. “Why?” she asks after a moment, with what seems to be genuine confusion.
“Because I always stay, but I haven’t asked in a long time if you want me to.” I do not say, Because “Helicopter Parent” is something I don’t want to be.
We keep walking. We are now close to the third grade door. “Yeah.”
“Yeah, you want me to stay?”
“Yeah.” She doesn’t say any more about it but her hands and body stay connected to mine as she places us both behind the other students in her class – her fingers lacing through my fingers, stilling my tickle-hand before it reaches her belly, then grasping my shirt, my pants, my elbow, twirling my hair in a state of perpetually connected motion I’ve come to believe only eight- (maybe nine-) year-olds are capable of – until at last, her teacher emerges and calls her line inside. After she walks toward the door of the school and we wish each other a good day, she gives me one more worried glance. I smile with a twinkle in my eye, and wave.
I’m doing my best to give her space to grow, but I don’t always get it right.
Leaving the school, I walk for a long time behind a three-year-old girl in a paisley dress who is exploring, commenting, pausing, stooping, and walking again beside her dad. He gently pets her hair three, four, maybe five times – an unconscious gesture, loving and protective. Warm. So familiar to me. So recent. So long ago.
I remember shadowing my toddler daughter along city sidewalks, noticing cats, flowers popping up between slabs of cement, stacked-stone walls, iron gates, scraps of paper in the gutter, dogs on leashes, anything close, touchable, hold-able, knowable. My little girl has always loved to explore.
The young girl (who I’ve nearly caught up to now in my swift walk to the city bus) reaches out a sweaty hand. “Will you hold this for me, Daddy? So I don’t lose it. Okay?” He takes it, of course, tucks it into his pocket.
I remember my small daughter placing things in my hand, too. Her message to me, though unspoken, was the same as this girl’s: Hold this. Protect this. Keep this safe.
Different daughter, different parent, but I recognize the dance.
Before school, my daughter – now long past three years old – asked, “Can I take a library book to school? I won’t lose it. I don’t lose books. Can I?” It wasn’t hard to decide. She has become quite good at tracking her things, and with the exception of a mood ring she set on the bathroom floor once to keep it from falling into the potty, books and treasures which accompany her to school generally accompany her home.
“Yes, you may,” her Mama and I agreed, proudly. “One at a time, please.”
“Thank you!” she gushed. We left the house basking in the sun of her freedom.
Which is why I asked if I should continue waiting for her line to go into the school.
She wasn’t ready for that, and yet – we did add space this week to our repertoire. One step back. A great leap of faith. I was not disappointed, but I was surprised.
My little girl was angry with me one night. Very angry. Very, very, very angry. Right before bed. She asked me to leave the room and I did. Usually, I stay (expecting to help her sift through her angry feelings even when her angry feelings are about me). But this time, I left and she handled the hurt and anger on her own. Or maybe Mama helped; I don’t know. When she finished getting ready for bed – at record speed, albeit with clomping and stomping and heavy sighs – she came to get me.
She looked at me with sad eyes, wearing my favorite shirt like a nightgown, its long sleeves flopping far beyond the ends of her fingertips. “I’m ready, Mami,” she said.
I hadn’t expected to see her again until morning. “Would you like me to come upstairs?”
And this was the surprise: The dance with my daughter is not the same as the dance with my own mom.
In this new dance, one step back isn’t always a permanent choice.
I followed my big-little girl upstairs for stories and cuddles because that’s what we do. It’s what she and I have always done. And when we stop doing this, we’ll do something else. We are making our own dance. I felt lighter as I ascended the stairs.
The trick is to stay connected – not too tight, not too loose – listen to the music, feel the rhythm, trust the flow. Let go. Come back together again and spin. And spin and spin and spin.