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What Graduation Looks Like When It’s Your Baby Leaving the Nest

Jenna McCarthy

It’s that time of year when your social media feeds are filled with photos of smiling, gown-clad graduates tossing their tasseled caps high into the air and beaming brightly behind lettered sweatshirts. Proud parents boast of their seniors’ accomplishments, their readiness, their plans, and occasionally their own heartache. This is what happens; what they hoped would happen. Pass the champagne!

Only this time, it’s you. That’s your cap-tossing, sweatshirt-sporting daughter (your first born, your baby), and that picture is your wildest dream and your worst nightmare fused into one stolen, high-resolution moment in time.

You think of all the other moments — the trips, the tears, the cuddles; your fights, your TikTok videos, your visits to the ER; her first tooth, her first steps, the first time she drove away without you — and it’s impossible to fathom that your precious little hatchling, the one you rocked and held and protected from cars and clowns and countless other dangers for the last 6,570-plus days of your life, is not only capable of leaving the nest but is actually leaving the nest.

“You did it, Mama!” the comments read. “Can’t wait to see what’s next for your amazing girl!”

She’s ready, you’re sure of it. (You, on the other hand, might be another story.) She’s strong and street-smart and organized, and if you send her a gift, she’ll send you a thank-you card every time. She can bake salmon and balance a checkbook. She has AAA and a taser and pepper spray, and she knows which body parts to aim for if you want to take someone down fast. She reads self-help books for fun, even though she needs less help than any other self you know. She has a voice she’s not afraid to use and the self-respect to use it. She’s going to be fine. She has more support, confidence, and poise than you did when you were her age and you were fine.

What if she gets sick? Or wrecks her car? Or some stupid boy breaks her heart? Did you teach her everything you were supposed to teach her? What if you left out something important? Your parents didn’t feel like this when you left, did they?

You have a life outside of her; you made sure not to forget to do that. You have friends, a career, pets, another kid you love just as much as you love her, hobbies, a husband you mostly still adore after 24 years and who (miraculously) mostly still adores you back. It’s a full, rich life; one you built carefully and intentionally. You showed her that you can balance family and work and friendships and not lose yourself in the muddy in-between. You should be proud.

You find yourself thinking about that essay that went viral — back before “going viral” was even a thing — that some dad wrote about the heartache of sending his daughter off to kindergarten. (Bitch, please.) You can’t find it now because the internet is saturated or because you’re old or maybe both. “Please, world, treat her kindly,” the dad implored. At least that’s the part you recall.

You’re on a plane together, over the ocean, hundreds of miles from land. Out of nowhere, you hit turbulence. The plane lurches, tilts, drops, bounces. Overhead bins pop open; the beverage cart rattles in the galley. She grabs your hand, her impossibly smooth brow knitted with fear. You’re terrified, too — of course you are! — but you can’t show it. You won’t show it. She needs you to be strong. Nobody has to tell you this; it’s hardwired into your DNA. “It’s just like a boat taking the waves,” you explain to her, smoothing her hair and pulling her closer. “Pilots do this every day. Planes were built to handle turbulence.” You’re not lying; these things are all true. It is and they do and they were. She smiles bravely because she believes you, because you’re the mom and she trusts you.

“Honey, you’re ready,” you tell her now when she looks at you with a quivering lip, her giant eyes veiled by a wall of tears she’s fighting to hold back. You take her hands and squeeze; she squeezes back. “You’ve got this,” you promise. “We’ll be right here. And if you need us, we’ll be right there.” You keep your voice gentle but firm, and you nod your head as you say this. You fake a smile and force it all the way up into your eyes, because if you don’t, you’ll break her heart, the heart you were put on this earth to protect.

You’re not lying; these things are all true. She is and she does and you will. She smiles bravely because she believes you, because you’re the mom and she trusts you.

So you let her go. Because you have to, and because she’s ready.

Please, world. Please treat her kindly.

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