Learning to Mother With Open Arms

My mother was an expert at letting go of her children. She made it look easy, opening her hands so that we could reach out for adventures, trials, learning experiences. Hunting for tadpoles in the ponds by the woods, bicycling several miles to the shops, or walking on the outside of the bridge on a dare - we were often out of her sight for long stretches at early ages. It built confidence in my brother, Chris, and me - a sense of self-reliance.

I appreciated her openhandedness then and marvel at it now that I have my own children. While I want them to grow, to increase their ability to cope on their own, I find myself struggling to let them go as easily as my mother let go of us. Each day on the news, there seems to be some new reason to cling, some new fear to telecast into mind and heart.

As parents, we are meant to be teaching independence, to be putting into our children's hands all the tools they will need as they grow up and away from us. Independence is learned day by day, decision by decision. I want to release rather than confine, but my own fears sometimes confine me. And, when they do, I think of Mom.

''I know you kids have good judgment,'' she told us early and often.

It was said, I now know, with as much hope as conviction. But it worked. Mostly, we did have good sense; being allowed to exercise it provided not only experience on which to base judgment, but resourcefulness as well. We faltered at times, but not seriously. Her faith in us was a trust we would have been loath to break.

Part of her openhandedness was born of conscious decision.

''I always carried my mother's fear as a burden,'' she once explained.

She was determined not to pass on that legacy of fearfulness. Sometimes, I could see her fighting back her own reservations, forcing herself to trust in both God and the children themselves.

''I thought if you asked to do something,'' she told me after I had a child of my own, ''you were probably ready to do it safely.'' I didn't realize then what courage that took.

Her liberality was freedom, but it never strayed to negligence. In fact, Mom loved us passionately and could be fiercely protective when necessary.

I still remember being stranded on a rock at Marblehead, Mass., the sheer cliffs fast becoming a washboard against which the incoming waves pounded. Chris and I, scuttling happily round the shore, had no knowledge then of northern tides and the swift alteration of the landscape that accompanies them. Standing on an outcropping, watching the water flood in and foam around the jagged rocks, we suddenly knew we were in trouble.

The water had filled the gap between us and the shore, making us uncertain of our ability to cross to safety. The rock on which we stood, I realized, was underwater at high tide. Visions of being swept off our perch, battered, lost, filled my head. We clung to each other, trying to muster the courage to make the leap.

Suddenly, Mom came flying down the hill, her face an echo of our terror. The tide was roaring. Propelled by the momentum of her downhill run, she leapt the gap from shore to our small oasis, just managing to keep from skidding off the other side through a combination of ballet and sheer effort. Without a word, she snatched up my smaller brother and jumped back across. She pushed him to safety, then turned to me.

''I can't carry you!'' she yelled over the crashing waves. ''You'll have to jump!''

''I can't!'' I cried, frozen with fear. There seemed to be a chasm between us. I wanted to be taken up in her arms, to be shielded, not tested.

''Yes you can!'' she shot back.

She could not have waded the gap; the water was too deep now, its rush in and out too strong.

''I'll catch you,'' she assured me, the urgency in her voice prodding me to action. ''Take a little run and jump. I'll catch you. I won't let you fall.''

It was what she had given us all our lives, that combined sense of ability coupled with an absolute certainty of her being there to catch us if we fell.

I jumped. She caught my hand as I skidded off into the water. Holding fast, she dragged me back up to her side. I was scraped, cold, and frightened, but safe and in absolute awe of her bravery. I knew she couldn't swim. I also knew that if I had fallen in, she would have come after me.

It was that same bravery that enabled her to say ''Yes'' when I asked to borrow the car at 16 to drive to Nantucket Island for a week of watercoloring; the same trust that enabled her to offer no objections when I announced at 20 that I was quitting college and moving to London to learn more about the world.

I knew what an act of courage it took for her to let us go. What I did not know until I had my own children is what constant prayer and faith it took, too.

For my children are walking away from me, not to escape, but to go forth and explore, to make their own place as they grow, decision by decision, into independence. They revel in their self-reliance.

Although I feel afraid sometimes, I rejoice with them in their freedom, their growing responsibility for their own lives. I am still learning lessons about letting go from the expert.

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