My eldest daughter was born two weeks past her due date with a wild shock of blond hair that stood on end and a fierce independent streak. Both Kathryn’s hair and her autonomy have grown exponentially in the 14 years since her birth, and in many ways, she would be unrecognizable to me were these qualities to disappear; they are, after all, hallmarks of her character. So it came as no surprise to me when, during the summer before eighth grade, Kathryn launched a search… for a boarding school.
She invited me to watch admission videos with her in the evenings before bed. Of course, at this point, high school seemed a distant splotch on the horizon, but sharing time together dreaming about the future felt like an intensely satisfying way of being present with my daughter. We’d curl up on the couch, a tangle of lanky legs, as Kathryn became transfixed by the myriad opportunities unfolding at her fingertips. Was I nervous? Sure. But a simple shift in perspective allowed me to see that I had but two choices in the matter: I could run from my fear and demand she remain under my roof, or I could embrace the opportunity to be an invaluable part of my daughter’s growth and independence.
Spoiler alert: I chose the latter option. I decided to stand firm in my belief that fostering my teenage daughter’s independence is really an investment in our relationship — regardless of what others have to say about it.
Has this process been an easy one for me? Heck no. But I did come to understand that if I was to support my daughter and let her fly, I needed to first step aside in order for her to stretch her wings. It’s the same approach I took when she initiated sleepaway camp at the tender age of 8 (a habit she’s continued every year since) and when I dropped her off to spend 48 hours alone in the woods with seven peers during a Rites of Passage program this summer.
If Kathryn can consistently step outside her comfort zone, free from pangs of homesickness or regret, who am I to get in her way? I’m just her mom, and fostering a solid relationship with her — wherever her life’s path takes her — is far more important to me than having a humdrum relationship with a surly teenager who retreats to her room craving only the companionship of an iPhone.
People have said some horrendous things to me as a result of Kathryn’s decision to go away to school, and I’ve had to ignore all of it.
“Sending her away already? You must be really stressed out,” or “How sad that Alice will be all alone,” or, my personal favorite, “Well, we think the local school system is just fantastic.” Sadly, the initiator of each comment is missing the real key: Kathryn is choosing her own path, taking a tremendous leap of faith and refusing to submit to fear of the unknown. With Kathryn’s adventurous spirit leading the way, my truth is a beacon: supporting teenage girls to be independent and autonomous is actually the key to establishing and sustaining solid relationships with them.
The start of school is closing in on us, and we are well prepared. Kathryn breezed through her summer reading list and is looking forward to joining the equestrian team; she is frustrated at having been placed in beginners French after two years of middle school experience but thrilled to have earned a spot in advanced algebra; she was hoping for an international roommate but is excited to be living with someone from Houston, Texas. And she never takes herself too seriously, as evidenced by her new bathrobe, which — of all things — is emblazoned with pink llamas.
Just a few weeks ago before heading into the woods for a week, Kathryn turned to me and placed both her hands on my shoulders before delivering a little pep talk: “Don’t worry, Mom. I am independent, self-sufficient and completely capable. I know I am going to survive. It’s simply a matter of whether or not I am going to thrive.”
In that fleeting moment, I caught an unexpected glimpse of the young woman Kathryn is becoming. Before August is up, I will be dropping her off at boarding school to embark on the next leg of her life’s journey. I am incredibly grateful for the myriad opportunities I’ve been granted to support Kathryn’s independence, and I’m going to miss her like crazy. I know enough to hold space for both.
Amid all the uncertainty swirling about in my head and chest as I contemplate her departure, I am incredibly certain of one thing: I won’t be missing out on my daughter’s best years when she goes off to boarding school; in fact, I am providing her the keys to unlocking them.
In the end, it’s about cheering for our kids no matter the direction in which they choose to take their lives — an invaluable lesson borne of having stood witness to a process that has been priceless.