by Joanie Butman
Sitting at my daughter’s recent graduation, I looked around to see many tear-filled eyes in the sea of parents and grandparents. What is everyone crying about I wondered? I felt like we were sliding into home head first. I had achieved my only goal: to get to graduation without either of us being in the police blotter of our local paper. I believe Hannah fulfilled her expectations as well and then some. In her 8th grade yearbook she answered the question of what she was looking forward to in high school with signature honesty: parties and prom, which explains my goal! Aside from a hiccup or two, we survived them all unscathed for the most part. We had cause to celebrate. Many parents commented to me after the ceremony about the bittersweet quality of the day. Personally, I could not have been more proud or happy as I watched the beautiful young woman that will always remain my little girl accept her diploma, basking in the rite of passage that marked the official end of her high school years. There were no tears though because this was a joyous occasion, the first of many milestones in her adult life.
She had said goodbye to her childhood and, in some ways, to me years ago. Just for the record, I did some of my best mothering when my kids were young - probably because I am still a kid at heart. I relished every moment with them – the invention box, the dress-up closet, the homespun plays, the tree house, lemonade stands, treasure hunts, parades, mystery adventures, endless games of foursquare, thousands of hours of cards. Unfortunately, they claim not to remember much of it, but I have volumes of photos to remind them; and every once in a while they will bring up one of our infamous add-on stories or talk about a long-forgotten adventure that lets me know they remember more than they admit. The beauty of those years was the simplicity of our life. The only expectation was what new adventure we would be embarking on each day whether it be a new playground or a geocache treasure hunt/hike. Our entertainment was free – making up stories, studying clouds, making mud pies, playing games. Sometimes just plotting out our day was more fun than the actual activity. As they aged, we moved on to bigger and better activities like laser tag and paintball, but we were still in it together.
Truth be told, the real bittersweet graduation came somewhere toward the end of middle school when my daughter moved on to her friends and no longer found time with mom exciting or desirable. I can understand that, but becoming an embarrassment was a little hard to swallow. I suppose that’s every parent’s own rite of passage to endure. It was a gradual transition as she tried to ease away gently at first but more forcefully as she grew older. I didn’t let go easily or gracefully but eventually surrendered to her independent nature that I’d managed to keep in check for so long.
The graduation I attended last week was just the culmination of a process that began years ago. I’ve had plenty of time to adjust to my new role as a hokey-pokey parent – one that steps in and out as needed, never again to be in the center of her life. In fact, the dance party the night of graduation was a classic illustration of this new role. My daughter would drag me onto the dance floor, then just as I was getting going (or maybe because I was getting going), she would whisper in my ear that I could leave now. Funny, as an infant she began dancing in my arms, graduated to my feet, then to holding my hands. Now I watch her dancing with her peers in wild abandon but she still ends the night in her father’s arms…just as she did as a child.
As far as the Hokey Pokey goes, I don’t know if I’ll ever get the timing right of exactly when I’m supposed to be in or out or which part of me is required at any specific moment. I’ve never been good at following formal dance steps and always seem to be a beat or two out of sync. Our struggle over who is going to lead probably explains the push/pull nature of our relationship. But that’s parenting – growing with your children, adjusting to new beats and moves, letting go of the lead yet always waiting in the wings, ever ready for the next dance. In reality, the only graduation from parenting is death, and thankfully there’s a lot of living to be done until that last dance.
I will share a few of my more notable parenting dances over the years:
Chicken Dance – frequently feel like a chicken with its head cut off, running around aimlessly.
The Dougie – only moves needed here are feeding and driving to hospital and doctor visits following sports injuries..
The Jerk – started this dance when I ceased to be fun and became an embarrassment.
Limbo –my flexibility continues to be challenged to the max as I’ve found myself stretched in ways I never imagined.
Macarena – similar to the number of hand gestures given to me over the years as a signal to leave or cease talking.
SHOUT – A little bit louder now, a little bit louder now, a little bit louder now - you know you make me want to SHOUT! (In good and bad ways, cheering is just another form of shouting you know)
Sprinkler – discovered I had an uncanny ability to put out fires of all kinds. Who knew?
Children grow up, about that we have no choice. As much as we’d like to slow it down at times or capture moments forever, the only choice I know of is whether or not to grow with them. If you don’t, you’ll become a wallflower waiting to be invited onto the dance floor, which won’t come often. And eventually, the cycle shifts and the line between parent and child blurs as our roles reverse in preparation for that last dance. No, I didn’t cry at graduation, but sitting here at midnight, the tears came flowing out as I finished this essay with Jackson Browne’s For a Dancer. Grab some tissues.
Just do the steps that you've been shown
By everyone you've ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another's steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone