A few weeks ago, my daughter Isabelle asked, “What time do I need to be home tonight?” I stopped unloading the dishwasher and looked up. She held her car keys in one hand and her wallet in the other.

The bright blue eyes of my six-year-old stared back at me. I silently begged the universe to protect the last bits of youthful innocence hiding behind her newly gained wisdom.

Soon she’ll be a freshman in college with no curfew. She won’t need permission to go places or remember to text me when she gets there. I won’t know who she’s with. The best I’ll have is what “Share My Location” shows me.

I thought of a million scenarios that I hadn’t prepared her for. I blurted out truths and musts while she was putting on mascara in the bathroom.

Don’t walk and look at your phone — I’m serious — that’s how women get assaulted. Be careful of drunk boys. Don’t carry a lot of cash. Don’t be alone in a room with a boy — even if you think he’s nice. Speak up. Use protection. Don’t do drugs. Watch your drink — seriously, Isabelle — cover it with your hand. Always travel with a friend. Don’t walk alone at night — promise me you’ll never walk alone. Wear your shower shoes. Drink enough water.

“I know, mom,” she said softly each time. Once gently placing her hand on my shoulder. “I’ll be fine.”

My goal was to raise a strong, independent girl. One who was self-sufficient and was capable of thinking for herself. A girl who questioned Ariel giving her voice away to a prince and challenged why more women didn’t hold office.

Isabelle and I got off to a rocky start. The early years crushed me under the weight of her complete dependence. I dreaded midnight feedings and inconsolable crying. I was supposed to “take it all in” and cherish every moment, but I spent most of my days hunched over in guilt and defeat because I didn’t.

Changing, feeding, bathing, carrying, and entertaining her consumed my whole day. I wished it all away and thought, “I can’t wait until she can get into the car herself,” as I chucked thirty pounds of baby and bucket into the backseat.

But the transitions were quick. Once she mastered something, I forgot there was ever a time she couldn’t do it without my help. “I can do it myself,” was a daily response to things, some that surprised me, like being able to open a can of tuna fish.

She learned to dress herself, tie her shoes, brush her teeth and pick up her toys. She learned how to turn on the television and put Honey Nut Cheerios and milk in a bowl, which restored the perk of a weekend morning.

On her first day of Kindergarten, I didn’t cry when I put her on the bus. Instead, I kissed her on the top of the head and said, “I can’t wait to hear all about your first day!”

As the bus bounced down the street, I quietly celebrated. No more daycare payments or working-mom guilt. I didn’t need to feel bad about filling a day with Phineas and Ferb instead of planting a vegetable garden. For six hours a day, she was with her friends creating, learning and laughing. Why are the other moms crying? I thought. What’s sad about her freedom and mine?

Our independence was inextricably linked. The more Isabelle did on her own, the more minutes I got back in my day. I didn’t miss making her lunch or folding her laundry. The day she could put on her own sunscreen, I vowed to take her outside more.

There were lessons. She missed spots with her sunscreen and got a sunburn. More than once, the dogs escaped when she let them out to pee. For months she ate Goldfish, string cheese and Oreos for lunch. The failures were part of the successes.

Our sweet spot was ten. She could entertain herself riding her bike or doing crafts and was eager to help me around the house. Can I vacuum? Can I take the dogs for a walk? Can I cut the vegetables? On weekend nights, she cuddled with me on the couch and watched the Food Network. It was magical, I should have paused time.

As she rounded thirteen, she craved social independence, which felt more scary than taking the railing off of her big girl bed.

Can I walk downtown? Can I go to the movies? Can I go to Water Wizz?

The way she asked, with the slightest raise of the last word, held hope.

I second-guessed my decisions. I looked at other parents and often thought they were crazy. My gut helped me figure out what felt unsafe. The small voice inside my head considered all angles and sometimes insisted, “Let her go.”

Isabelle’s independence soared when she got her license and barreled down the teenage highway to freedom. It was met with mixed emotion. One minute, I pictured her hurt in a car crash and the next minute I was thrilled that I DIDN’T HAVE TO DRIVE HER! The big jumps to independence — hers and mine — required a combination of fear and elation. A give and a take. A risk and a reward.

The more Isabelle pulled away, and exercised the independence I carefully curated, the closer I wanted to keep her. It’s how I knew I was doing it right. But it felt awful.

The past few days, I’ve had flashes of so many firsts. The cheers the first time she used the potty. The way her curls bounced as she ran up the walkway for her first sleepover. The joy of her first homemade pizza when she declared, “This is the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.” The week she went to camp in tears and returned with confidence in her stride.

If my job were to raise a self-sufficient, capable, free-thinking girl, I did so well I put myself out of one.

And now, here we are.

I’m left wondering if there’s an easy way to do this. To let go. To accept that the lion’s share — or all the shares — of raising her is over. To be happy and sad. To leave her and to keep her. To stand in her dorm room, five hundred miles from the bottom of our driveway, and kiss her on the forehead.

So, this is independence — hers and mine. I leave the best parts of me with her. And leave the best parts of her to take risks, aim high, and remember she is loved.



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Amy McHugh

Amy McHugh

Mom to teenagers who spends her time writing, teaching, and eating papaya. A champion of kids with chronic or critical illness and the moms who love them.