As my daughter leaves for college, I let go

There is a fine line between being an active, concerned parent and one that doesn't know when to let go.

As my daughter, Nicole, prepares to leave home for college, I'm discovering how hard it is to stay on the right side of this line. While I cling to the apron strings connecting us, Nicole, eager to taste her independence, yanks at those strings, trying to loosen my grip. What results is an odd mother-daughter, push-me, pull-you kind of tango.

For the past couple years, it's gone like this:

Mother's question, junior year: "Have you thought about taking an advanced placement class so you can earn college credit?"

Daughter's response: "It's environmental studies. I'm not interested in that."

Mother: "Yeah, but you can earn three college credits."

Daughter: Loud sigh.

Daughter's question, senior year: "Would you please edit this scholarship application?"

Mother's response: Feverish writing for a long period.

Daughter: "You did it again! You've rewritten half my essay."

Mother's sheepish reply: "I just made a few suggestions."

Daughter: "It's my application, Mom. It's my future, not yours."

As graduation approached, Nicole and I reached a truce. She accepted that as her mother, I had a right to express my opinion and offer suggestions. I accepted that I had to trust her judgment and respect her choices.

I bit my lip a few times and Nicole shot me a few glares, but our truce held.

She was accepted to a great university. When the time came for orientation and registration, I played it cool.

"So," I asked nonchalantly, "are you going to registration with your friends?"

"Don't you want to come with me?" Nicole asked, slightly panicked.

We went to an introductory session together, but then parents and students were separated.

"You may be paying the tuition," a university official told the auditorium of parents, "but choosing classes really is the students' responsibility."

Evidently, I wasn't the only parent having a hard time letting go. The night before, I had perused the course catalog and highlighted classes I thought looked good. As Nicole headed off to her session with an adviser, we agreed to meet for lunch before she registered.

"Think about those courses I highlighted," I called to her retreating back.

We met three hours later in the cafeteria. Nicole was glowing with excitement. "I have my entire schedule figured out," she said.

"Already?" I was taken aback, assuming she would want to discuss it with me first.

"It's great, Mom," she continued. "Look at what I'm taking."

I examined the schedule lying on the table. Nicole had not taken a single one of the classes I had suggested. Brushing aside my initial pang of disappointment, I looked more carefully. Every class she had chosen exactly suited her interests.

I sat back and studied my daughter as she looked excitedly around the cafeteria. I saw a mature, capable young woman with a keen mind and the ability to shape her future. She no longer needed her mom evaluating every decision she made. I felt proud, although still a bit melancholy.

I reflected on the lessons Nicole has struggled to learn over the past 18 years: responsibility, compassion, and hard work. There have been a few potholes along the way, but she is well-equipped and eager to embrace her future. The next step, I recognized, was mine to take. I brushed away a tear and mentally untied the apron strings, giving my daughter and myself the independence we both needed.

Sensing my mood, Nicole reached over and patted my hand. "You know, Mom, we'll have to be in regular e-mail contact when I'm in school."

"Why's that?" I asked as I struggled to get my emotions under control.

"So we can chitchat about what's happening in our lives, and I'll probably need some advice now and then," she said matter-of-factly. "Maybe you can drive up for the day sometime this fall, and we'll do lunch."

I smiled broadly, welcoming the birth of a new relationship with my now-adult daughter.

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