Childhood is full of milestones and transitions - thus is parenthood.
The moment her warm vernix-coated body was placed on my chest, I was filled with a surge of love so powerful it took my breath away. With 10 tiny little fingers, 10 toes, plump rosebud lips, and snow-white skin, every ounce of her was perfect and I never wanted to let her go.
In the early days and weeks I spent hours gazing at the new life I had created. When her big blue eyes locked onto mine, I felt the fierce and primal bond of a mother and daughter. Like a lioness with her cub, she needed me for everything, and I couldn’t imagine a time would come when she wouldn’t.
Now, my daughter is almost my height. Years have passed, 12 of them, and I find myself at a parental juncture, as she ever so subtly pulls away from me.
I watch as my daughter – this former resident of my belly and constant companion – claims her independence, a milestone every parent wants their child to reach one day. But no one warned me it would happen within the blink of an eye.
When did she stop reaching for my hand before walking out the door, up the stairs or even to the letterbox? Her independence is, of course, healthy and age-appropriate, but sometimes I just greedily want her back, all to myself.
I ponder this as I drive to a high-school tour, convinced that we just walked through the primary school gates yesterday. So this is parenthood: a succession of memories and moments that comprise a lifetime of firsts and lasts, days that seem endless and too short at the same time.
Psychologist Sabina Read says that life transitions are an integral part of human experience. “Much is said about the transition to parenthood, but little is said about the transitions thereafter.” And there are plenty. Significant transitions include starting childcare or primary school, a new sibling, the beginning of high school, right up to empty nesting.
“Children progress through a number of life transitions and each is a pivotal point of development and growth, not only for them but their parents as well,” explains Read. “Often they bring mixed emotions as there is a shift in identity and loss of control. There is grief in loss.”
Adolescence, for example, is a critical time when children pull away from their parents and start to discover their own identity. Significant transitions can be a tricky time for parents. Read describes parenthood as a continuing, evolving, learning journey. “It’s not just the little people we are raising, but ourselves, too. Transitions can pack a punch, because it’s our journey as well.”
Dr Amanda Ferguson, author and psychologist, agrees. “Some low level of grief or at least adjustment is likely for parents with a healthy bond with their child,” she says. “The day you have a child, you know they’re going to leave you one day. Separation begins at birth, and from then onwards it’s a constant process of letting go.”
In order to navigate the changing landscape with acceptance and grace, Read encourages parents to look for the victories. “There may be a sense of loss, but there are gains as well. Every transition is a new experience as well as a learning opportunity for both child and parent.”
“Invite and nurture a sense of agency and self-advocacy for your child as they transition, whether that’s a four-year-old going into school or your child is starting year seven.”
“Our parenting role is to meet the needs of our young people [so that] they grow to be independent adults, with a strong sense of self. But we are not robots. We share their hopes and dreams and the whole kaleidoscope of emotions, so a little self-compassion is needed.” Dr Ferguson also prescribes a sense of celebration. “Plan to reward yourself at landmark transitions such as the first day of school – have lunch with a friend, do something for yourself.”
So, as my eldest daughter prepares for high school, and my youngest gets ready to skip through the primary school gates, I am reminded that love and loss are interwoven. And the antidote to loss is to embrace the growth. I’ll continue to cherish the moments of connection while fostering their independence. And I’ll be sure to book in that lunch date with a friend to celebrate the milestone.
TIPS FOR PARENTS IN TIMES OF TRANSITION:
- Practise mindfulness and meditation. Remain in the moment, and find ways to embrace, rather than resist, the transition.
- Keep a healthy mindset and maintain self-care. Remember that change will keep coming, during both the good times and the bad.
- As your children get older, encourage their independence while reminding them that home is a safe environment they can return to whenever needed.
Words by Michaela Fox