The instructor of my “Home With Baby” class likes to tell us that breastfed babies are “color me gone;” having been properly nurtured at the breast, they eagerly run off to explore their environment, checking in with mom only momentarily before heading off again. This week my daughter started crawling, and she is definitely gone! Previously having been content to be held and carried around the house, she is now perpetually squirming in my arms, wanting to be placed on the floor. Once down, she quickly moves away from me, off to examine some new corner of the room. While I don’t believe that breastfeeding is a requirement for raising a “properly nurtured child” (whatever that means!), I do believe that one of our first tasks as parents is to create with our children bonds so stable and secure that they develop the courage to head out into the world without us. Having cultivated that courage through nurturing, our second task is to let them go.
At only 9 months into motherhood, I know it’s too early to start writing overwrought pieces about letting my baby go. But the truth is that I’ve been letting her go in small ways almost every single day, although figuring out when to do so isn’t always easy. My daughter’s first solid food was Cheerios cereal. In the beginning, she couldn’t eat them without assistance; they would stick to the palm of her hands, or she would drop them on the way to her mouth. She would become frustrated, sometimes crying and pulling her hair. It broke my heart to see her so discouraged; my stomach literally turned in knots. And so, when she started to cry, I quickly picked up a Cheerio and placed it in her mouth. But eventually, I had to stop helping, leaving her to independently develop the killer pincer grasp she uses to accurately pick up the cereal today. I had to let her be—had to let her go—so that she could discover her capabilities by herself. A few weeks ago, she started trying to pull herself up into a standing position. Her frustration again presented itself and in response, I obligingly placed her in the upright position she desired. Again, however, I had to let her go. Last Thursday, I walked into her room after she had woken from a nap to find her standing at the railing of her crib. The smile on her face as she watched me enter the room made it clear that my delight at her mastery of this skill was matched only by her delight in having realized that she was capable of the mastery on her own.
This process—this letting go in small, but regular, intervals—can only end in heartbreak for me. My husband and I already joke about the tears we will both shed when we head home after dropping her off at college for the first time. We dramatically envision watching her image grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror as we drive further and further away. We imagine that it might take us days, even weeks (but not too many weeks), to fully embrace the return of the freedoms we gave up 9 months ago: going to the movies or eating at a restaurant on a whim; watching TV late into the evenings, with no threat of a 3AM feeding; sleeping as late as we’d like on Sunday mornings. And yet, we throw ourselves completely into the process anyway. We hold her, and kiss her, and rock her to sleep at night. I go to her if she does wake at 3, and sing and nurse her back to sleep, waiting until she is completely limp to place her in her crib. I don’t force her to engage with people with whom she doesn’t want to engage. I expose her to new places, new noises, new people, all while holding her, waiting for her to ask to be put down. Her father’s is the first face she sees in the morning; mine is the last face she sees at night. To the best of our abilities, we try to show her that she is secure with us; that despite the turbulence she may encounter in the world, there will always be peace in our arms. She is now taking off without us, barely casting us a glance over her shoulder as she crawls across the room after an object that has caught her interest.
Sometimes when I’m playing with her on the floor or in the rocker, my daughter uses my body to pull herself up. Once standing, she clumsily throws her arms around my neck. Usually, she is after an object behind me, or eager to touch the cushion on the back of the chair. Every once in a while, however, she lays her head in the crook of my neck, and becomes still. I quickly wrap my arms around her, for I know the moment will not last long. I breathe in her sweet baby smell, and try to hear the message I believe she is conveying to me: “don’t worry mommy; I’m always leaving you, but I am never really gone.” And just like that, a second later, she is off again, exiting my arms as quickly as she entered them.