I’m not sure how to survive my children growing up. Today I watched my youngest son drive away to school on his own. Tears welled up in my eyes, and my heart hammered in my chest. I felt nauseous and electrified and lost.

And I thought, This is ridiculous. I’m a professional mother. I’ve done this two other times. But all I could picture was my kindergarten son with chubby cheeks, wearing his Little Bear backpack and climbing onto the school bus for the first time; he turned to wave (which he did not do today!) and left without any help from me. I distinctly remember feeling terrified for no logical reason.

Today, my body feels exactly the same way, only for highly logical reasons. I am worried that he will drive into a tree or be hit by another car or drive off the road or go too fast or look at his phone while he’s driving. These are completely logical fears where new drivers are concerned. After all, I am a professional mother. I think by now, I know what I should be terrified about.

And to think that I had to make him take drivers’ ed! And make him practice driving. Then yesterday, I tried to tell him he wasn’t quite ready yet and that I should drive him a little longer, and it started something like an argument. Which I lost.

Today his real license became legal; he was up and ready to go. The lure of freedom and independence called urgently, and he raced towards it. Just hope he’s not racing in the car.

I know it’s hard for kids to grow up, but I think it’s harder for parents. I am making some suggestions for myself:

  • pray for them daily and often–for safety, wisdom, faith, self-control, diligence, tenderness (I think that will take care of all the other issues)
  • show faith in them, even when I don’t feel it (gives them confidence)
  • affirm decisions and perspectives, instead of criticizing and correcting (develops leadership)
  • model the behavior I want to see–listening, considering, respecting, encouraging (builds character)
  • cheer for them, literally and physically (makes them feel secure)
  • work with them at redesigning your relationship: their growth is my growth; our relationship together is in a constant state of growth and rebirth; I must desire and welcome the growth, rather than clinging to the way we functioned previously (which always seems better in a moment of crisis)

Well, there’s my list, and I pretty much stink at all of it (except the prayer piece, because that has nothing to do with them, and the cheering piece, which happens spontaneously). My kids will affirm all my shortcomings. This is a difficult list to master because it involves two people merging and transforming midst a never-stagnant process of maturation, adapting to one another during this grisly business of letting go and reigning in, welcoming freedom and pulling it back, letting each other make mistakes and forgiving each other afterwards.

As a parent, I think the hardest thing about growing up is anticipating danger. It’s seeing them catapulting towards a cliff, warning them about its existence and the consequences of falling off, and then stepping aside and letting them take the plunge or stop themselves on the brink of disaster. I’m learning that love lets people topple without the “I told you so” and the self-aggrandizing guilt that I should’ve or could’ve done more to stop it. Love is not martyrdom. Somewhere alone the way, I must grow up by learning not to wear my children’s guilt. I am not responsible when they throw rocks on the playground or text while driving.

Say it with me: “It’s not my fault.” Growing up is letting other people, even the ones we love most, make their own mistakes and wear their own guilt.

Love prays, believes, and forgives, but fear builds a fortress to keep people contained, a fortress they will ultimately rebel against just so they can breathe and learn how to grow up, albeit with carnage along the way. Better to let them get in the car and drive alone than lock them in, prompting them to drive, careening toward a precipice, once your back is turned.

They are individuals, after all. Little people climbing on an orange bus, growing into big people, driving away in cars. And all of them are breaking our hearts into a million pieces that we put back together once they’ve disappeared from view. (And after we’ve checked their locations on our (GPS app.)

Giving them space is how we both grow up. My son drives away happy, and I cry without him knowing. (And my children don’t read my blogs, so everyone’s okay with this scenario.)