The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The inevitability of growing up and moving out


My daughter and I called it the caterpillar tree. It might have been an oak, or an elm, or it was simply a magically large and lush tree in the front yard of our first home. With a trunk the color of chestnuts, leaves the color of emeralds. Along the surface of the grooved bark lived brown and green caterpillars, clusters of them, nuzzled against each other, some fuzzy and spotted, others spiky and striped. We’d collect sticks and twigs from around the yard, nudge a few caterpillars on to get a closer look, then wiggle them off onto the tree trunk, back where they belonged with the others. There were dozens, no hundreds, no thousands of them, their little legs and feet gripping on securely, as a tight group, staying together. As one.

Em would point at the tree with her little 4-year-old index finger. “Look Mommy, they go all the way to the sky,” she’d say, jumping up and down in her hot pink high top sneakers. Every morning before preschool we’d check on the caterpillars, watch as they’d cling together, as if they had no place else to go. And with the afternoon sun hitting just right, the tree would light up a blanket full of infinite gem-like creatures.

But one morning a few weeks later the caterpillars were gone. All of them. “Where’d they go Mommy? Are they coming back?” Emily asked, her frizzy wisps framing her heart-shaped face. I tried to remember the stages of metamorphosis from 8th grade Biology—the chrysalis, the butterfly forming inside the cocoon. But these caterpillars just left, as if they fell down and walked away. Or simply vanished. Did they go one at a time, or was it easier to leave all at once? Were they scared, or were they ready to go? “They might come back sweetie, but maybe it was time for the caterpillars to become beautiful butterflies and fly away,” I said, with an image of fluttering wings, some a vivid orange, others a purple or red hue. Instead of sadness, Emily looked up at me, the blueness of her eyes as clear as ice cubes, our hands finding each other with ease and a sense of immediacy. “Okay,” she said, “Maybe it was time for them to go. I can’t wait to see their pretty wings when they fly. Like Tinkerbell.”

I didn’t want to tell her the truth that day, that I knew the caterpillars wouldn’t come back. They’re not supposed to. We might hope the once-caterpillars-turned-butterflies will visit us; we might pray for their safe return, but the caterpillars are forever gone, their fuzzy blankets replaced, their little legs and bodies transformed. What we’ve come to expect we can no longer control until the swift fluttering of a wing signals they’ve come back to us.

Luckily we moved away from our first home before the start of the next butterfly season. Would there be a new slew of caterpillars huddled together on the bark or would the tree trunk remain bare? We would never know.

Emily’s my firstborn, and she’s going off to college in the fall. A few years back, she referenced the caterpillar tree in a note she left on my bedside table, comparing the fallen caterpillars to a night of adolescent mistakes and bad choices. “Remember the caterpillar tree,” she said in her bubble-like handwriting. “Together we thrive, but naturally apart we will fail. We must fail.” At one point the first caterpillar must fall.

Her teen years will be a series of fallen caterpillars. One by one, from the skin of the tree, they will peel away the layers of childhood as they ready to take flight, leaving the others exposed and raw.

Every caterpillar has to fall; but Emily’s my caterpillar. The change to adulthood is beautiful and scary, the transformation simultaneously a wonder and a loss. I know I am not ready for all that comes next, but I have no choice. It is time.

“We are all caterpillars,” I want to tell my firstborn before she leaves the nest this fall. Not because the caterpillars come back, because they don’t, but so she remembers her mistakes and disappointments are natural and inevitable. As she moves on and grows, so too will the roots grounded deep beneath her, our home a place she can always return to. And like the 4-year-old girl with lopsided pigtails and a love of fairies and nature, I will look up at the sky in the late afternoon sun, hoping to see the fluttering of an orange, or purple or red hue way up in the sky, signaling my baby has come back to me.

Randi Olin is a writer, editor and mother to two teens. She is the Managing Editor at Brain, Child Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. You can find us at and sign up for our newsletter here.

You might also be interested in:

The life secrets I want my teen to learn

Why I read aloud with my 18-year-old