’Tis the season: high school is over, our fledglings are leaving the nest and parents across the country are experiencing a whirlwind of emotions — including pride, nostalgia, gratitude, love and, most of all … panic. Like those desperate moments at the end of an exam when the proctor has called “time” and stands ready to snatch our handiwork, we scribble our final edits, because once that blue book is handed in, the deal is done. In the case of this particular exam — our children — we have been working on it for 18 years. “Time” has been called; the proctor called “the world” awaits, and there is still work to be done.
It’s not that I want my kid to stay home. I have never been moved by comments on how fast time flies, how our children grow up in the blink of an eye, and how we have to cherish every second. I think eighteen years is plenty.
My panic, rather, is prompted by my worry that despite her brains, beauty and character, my daughter is not entirely prepared for this world. I watch her hand in forms at the last minute; I see the condition of her room; and I am panicked about whether she is game-ready for that thing called “life.” It doesn’t help that (as my wife is quick to point out) pretty much every habit of hers that grates on me, she got from me; none of which mitigates the fact that she is still very much a work in progress. Over and over these past few months, I have caught myself helicoptering — or, more precisely, diving, kamikaze-like — into the affairs of my child, impelled by my doubts that this kid, who to this day needs to be reminded to set her alarm clock, is in possession of the requisite life skills to navigate all that awaits her.
From the beginning — the very beginning — the dynamic of children separating from parents has defined our humanity. “Therefore a person shall leave his father and mother…,” teaches Genesis, an early indicator that exiting the Garden of Eden is the marker of becoming a mature adult. Either on terms of their own choosing, or, more often than not, not of their choosing, our faith heroes have separated from their households of origin. Abraham smashed the idols of his father’s workshop; Queen Esther was orphaned at an early age; Moses rebelled against the house of Pharaoh, where he grew up.
It is individuals who resist leaving home — Joseph’s scheming brothers, Lot’s wife who turns to a pillar of salt, Samson the man-child dependent on his parents — who fail to take agency for their actions, abdicate the promise of their potential, prove unable to build relationships of meaning, and lack the tools to cope with failure.
Ultimately, I know that my panic is less about my daughter and more about me and loss of control. It is a frightening thought that my little girl will go out into the world, make decisions for herself, fall down, fail and have to pick herself up — all by herself. She will chart her own path, set boundaries between herself and the home that gave her life and develop into her own person.
Our children must leave home because it is natural that they do so, and it is their time to do so. They must leave home in order to experience and negotiate the failures and successes, heartache and joy that make all of us who we are. Our children must leave home in order to become the unique individuals who have hitherto never before existed in this world, something they can only do if we are willing to let go of them and they of us.
Last week I dropped my daughter off at the airport and, after telling her I loved her, asked her to text when she got through security. Soon enough, the text came through, and Siri asked if I wanted to reply. Of course, I wanted to; but I didn’t. Time to let go — I hope she lands safely.
Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side.