I had been one of four, too, but we had one boy and three girls, and there had definitely been differences. My brother didn’t have a curfew, for instance, but I did. He also didn’t have to bring girls home to meet my parents, yet even though I dated the same boy all the way through high school, he had to come to the door before every date and ring the bell and say hello.
Not for my daughters.
My oldest daughter was born overnight on a rainy, stormy day in mid-May. I was shocked she was a girl. I had assumed through the whole pregnancy she would be a boy, and I was beyond delighted. I would make her an independent girl and then an independent woman. I was sure of that.
I cheered her first steps away from me — on her first birthday she toddled delightedly toward the back sliding door of our small ranch house, her feet so carefully perched on the linoleum floor. It was not a time of tears — for either of us.
At 2½, she started attending morning preschool twice a week. She didn’t look back when I left her in the room with the other babies, some crying for their mothers or looking confused.
Full-day kindergarten was a no-brainer. She couldn’t wait for school to start.
I rejoiced at every milestone. I didn’t get sad when she told me she wanted to go to sleep-away camp at age 9. I was excited when she moved up to middle school. When she was 16, she decided to spend a semester of high school abroad, in Israel, a 12-hour plane ride away. I admired her incredible courage and wished I was more like her. I missed her like crazy those four months, but she came back. She always did.
She applied to colleges all over the country. When my friends were trying to control driving distances — not more than three hours, needs to be within a day’s reach, not out of state — I encouraged my girl to go as far as she wanted. She had been to Israel for four months on her own at 16 — why not college on the other side of the country? There were planes.
She chose a college about a five-hour drive away. It wasn’t a long distance, but in those four years we rarely saw her. She was too busy growing and changing and enjoying her life. I visited her at school every now and then. She was always trying something new. She was always ready for the next adventure.
I’m about to be an empty nester. Here’s why I’m not sad.
That led my girl to study abroad during college. She chose a program in England — a tame location, in fact, compared with other options halfway around the world or in South America or anywhere, really. I didn’t stop her from choosing. I wanted her to have this thing that I was always afraid of having myself. I wanted her to be independent, because I never quite had been.
So England it was. She spent the fall of her junior year there. We didn’t see her for four months. We had done it before, we could do it again.
She loved it. She loved the quiet town of Bath that she had chosen. She loved the slow pace and friendliness and learning about a new country. And she met a young man. A month into her stay, she said she was “seeing someone.” Since she was only 20 and bound to go on other adventures, I didn’t think anything of it. But when she came home, she was still seeing him.
She was still doing the independent thing, too. She was no longer living in a dorm, but was sharing a house with her three best friends. She stayed at school over the summer to work at a job she had pressed hard to get. She started applying to graduate school.
The young man was still in her life. They took turns flying back and forth for visits. When they were here, my daughter showed him our country, taking trips to D.C. and New York. When they were there, they did what Europeans do — they took cheap flights to nearby countries. My daughter has seen much of Europe and she is only 23. She longs to go other places as well.
Last fall, she sat my husband and me down. She and the boyfriend were going to get engaged, she said, and she was going to move to England, where she would become a British citizen and raise her family. Our independent girl was leaving us.
I try hard to be happy for her. She and her boyfriend were — are — a perfect fit. She says he makes her feel like the best person on earth and at the same time gently encourages her to be better. He derives strength from her empathy and concern. They want the same things in life.
I should be thrilled that she has found love this early in her life, and I am. But when she told us this news, I felt, suddenly, like I had chosen the wrong thing for my girl. I made her independent. I pushed her to challenge herself, to see the world, to learn and try new things. And in doing so, she found happiness nowhere nearby.
I never expected my daughter to stay nearby, or live a life similar to mine. I knew that there would be more out there for her, that she would want a different way of life, and I encouraged it. I couldn’t wait to see where she would go.
Until she was going so far away. Forever.
My daughter and her fiance are now engaged, and are getting married next year. She will move to England with him. They will build a life there — traveling a lot, as they both love to do, and will buy a home and decorate it. They will build their careers and, someday, start a family. And I will be here, in the United States.
People keep telling me that I will now “have someplace great to visit.” They tell me about FaceTime and texting and videos, as though I’ve never heard of them. But there is nothing like the feeling of knowing that, in a way, you are losing your child, and you are losing your grandchildren, too. When I chose to support independence for my daughter, when I knew it was the only way I wanted to raise her, I never thought about the possibility that she might not come back.
But now it’s happening, and she is not coming back. My grandchildren will be culturally unfamiliar, living a life I have never lived and can’t quite imagine. I will see them two or three times a year in person if I’m lucky, and I will be Grandma on FaceTime. It’s not how I pictured it. But then, I set it up just this way. We will all learn to live with it.
My daughter is independent, after all. It’s what I always wanted.
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of five women’s fiction novels, including her latest, A Million Ordinary Days. She is also an essayist whose work has appeared not only in On Parenting, but also on Spring.St., Kveller and many others. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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