The Art of Stepping Back

So this week, Emily was mastering the art of blowing up balloons. I could call it science and health, if I were tracking such things yet, but she’s four, so I’m not doing any ‘official’ recording.

What kid doesn’t love balloons? Emily adores them, and has been encouraged by us to ask store managers and restaurant workers politely for sample balloons when she sees them. She’s already outgoing, so its easy, and it gets her in the practice of: a) asking for what she wants, and b) interacting with others in different social settings. And I guess there is a ‘c’ in there too. I love to see the bemused look on the individual’s face as they nod, look around for a parent (I’m always within eyesight) and then hand over a balloon.

So she loves balloons so much that she found, and retrieved, a large bag of them out of a kitchen drawer and has been determined to blow up every single one. Not only that, but she designates some pets, and some of them people (family members usually) so that our home has become filled with floor-traversing, gently bobbing Kellogg and Dixie (our dogs) and Mama and Daddy and Emily and so many more. They inch into every room, and I kick them accidentally wherever I go, only occasionally hearing a loud pop when a cat or overzealous child has had enough of a particular balloon.

Early on, her dad and I got tired of blowing up balloons and ended up setting daily limits. This was frustrating for Emily. After all, there were so many balloons and so little time! Both of us said to her, “If you want it blown up, do it yourself.”

“I can’t!”

“You’ll learn. Just keep trying.” (I’ve said this umpteen times about so many things!)

What followed the denial of ability was almost as bad as the constant requests from her for balloons to be inflated. She finally figured out just the right way to blow so that air actually entered the balloon. Those first attempts were wet, messy affairs. Child spit everywhere and of course she was still asking and asking for balloons to be inflated. Eventually she got a tiny bit of air in, but then the minute she stopped blowing and went to take another breath, the balloon emptied! What followed that, by Day 2, was a series of short-quick inflates, she would basically hyperventilate into the balloon and stand there grinning (and swaying) with a half-full balloon.

I thought to myself, Maybe if I just show her how to inflate it, hold it, then inflate it more, this would help. Otherwise, she’s going to pass out if she keeps doing this!

I spent about five frustrating minutes trying to show her the perfect balloon blowing technique before throwing my hands up and saying, “You know what, kiddo? You are doing just fine. Keep trying.”

Less than two hours later, she had mastered it. Maybe my tips helped, but honestly, I doubt they did. Emily learned to blow up a balloon – and believe me she was bursting with pride over it – all on her own. Eventually I’m sure she will also manage to learn how to tie the balloon on her own as well.

I have my two girls, no other children (unless you count my husband and recently he’s been very grown up so I can’t complain). Danielle will be 23 years old this fall, and Emily will be five. If I have learned anything from parenting Dee, it was to step back. I’m not saying walk away, but simply step back, it is amazing, truly AMAZING, what a child will learn on their own, under their own power, without any interference from us.

And really, isn’t that what our job is all about? We begin by sharing our lives with a completely helpless human being. We cherish each step forward, standing beside them, loving them, and supporting them as they take their first steps, learn to dress themselves and use the toilet instead of diapers. We may nudge them a little, encourage those landmark steps (especially the last one!), and give suggestions or feedback along the way. But parenting is a odyssey of a series of steps backwards. We allow them to breathe, to learn, and to grow – with our constant presence and arms waiting to catch them when they fall.

But it isn’t easy. At least not for me. I have raised one, watched her leave my home and settle 1,500 miles away from me. That was heartbreaking – and it still is. Because it’s never enough, the phone calls or emails or letters that we send back and forth. It’s never enough to satisfy the hole that her daily presence provided when we still lived under the same roof. Parenting is the art of stepping back – slowly, and with great care. I know that, as I step back, slowly, gently, I’m letting go by tiny increments. It is a joyful thing – to see a squirming squalling bundle become a fully formed human, with thoughts and emotions and dreams and talent. But it also a lot like dying, or at the best, metamorphosis into something else. Some other level of relationship that is uncharted and murky.

I guess parenting for me is also a great joy and a quiet sadness all rolled into one.

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