When my boys were tiny, I remember teaching them how to throw a ball. For these little guys, success was in understanding the mechanics of the throw. If they released the ball too early, it went nowhere, maybe even falling behind them. Holding on too long produced an even more disastrous result with the ball slamming into the ground in front of them. But, after a few misfires, they soon figured out that there was an opportune time to let go, and it was then that the ball traveled the furthest.
Now, years later, as these same boys are ready for takeoff, I myself am trying to figure out the right time to let go so that these fabulous human beings can fly as far as they possibly can.
Nobody tells you about this part when you are pregnant.
Sure, intuitively you realize that this time will come someday, but practically you cannot prepare yourself for how it all goes down, slowly, almost unnoticeably, and moment by moment. It begins with the slightest hesitancy to step in. After years of paving the way, enabling connections, and making decisions for your sweet child who is far too naïve and vulnerable to go it alone, you begin asking yourself, “Is my involvement appropriate here?” The well-placed doubt keeps you in your seat as your child is hit with baseballs; it keeps you silent when they are saddled with a ton of homework; and it keeps you off the phone when they are treated unfairly. You no longer can choose his friends, fight his fights, or make his choices without seeming overbearing.
So you do the next best thing.
Sure, you are no longer on the field with your kid, but you are coaching from the sidelines. You offer advice which is heard about half the time and heeded even less than that. Sometimes, you yell louder and more often in hopes that your wisdom will get through. You tell yourself that perhaps he didn’t actually hear you the first time, or maybe you didn’t explain yourself well, or perhaps he didn’t understand the urgency of your words. On occasion you step back on the field to lead him to where he needs to be, but from there you look around and shamefully realize that you are the only grownup playing. So, you slink back to the sidelines and watch him make mistakes which you pray are little, and recoverable.
And before long, your advice stops flowing unsolicited. Your authority is optional. You wait in hopes of being asked for guidance or assistance. After years of carrying this child around on your shoulders, you are relegated to serving as the safety net, a critically important and sporadically satisfying job with all the glory of a street sweeper. You wake up one day and there is a fully formed person eating breakfast at your table, complete with ideals, ethics, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies that are shockingly not identical to your own, despite your very best efforts to produce a clone. You are no longer in the game, your head coaching days are largely gone. You have become a spectator.
At that point you wonder, “Am I done?”
The answer, of course, is no. But now the work shifts from your child back to yourself as you come to terms with all that you did wrong in raising this person — and celebrate every last thing you did right. You inevitably realize that he turned out nothing like you dreamed he would, and you love him fiercely anyway. You laugh at yourself for ever believing you could have known how this game would go. You seek out his face and listen to the tone of his voice for clues of happiness or despair. You pray that he has retained the best pieces of advice you have given, and forgotten about those times when you lovingly failed him. You continue cheer him on, encourage him all the while praying for nothing but fair weather in his life. You make sure he knows you will always be there watching over him. Then… you let him go.
And, in doing so, you become what you were always meant to be — a fan.