Holding On and Letting Go
Two great things you can give your children: one is roots, the other is wings. (Hodding Carter)
It is said that, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” (Havelock Ellis) It is, to be sure, a balancing act for every parent. We wish to give our children the opportunities to grow, to become more independent and forge out their own path in this world. Yet, we want to protect them, keep them safe and shield them from harm, hurt & the inevitable disappointments that life will bring them. Sometimes we perform this balancing act with great clarity and success and at other times we, as parents, fall short. We put our own fears, anxieties and baggage, in front of our child’s hopes, aspirations & desires. When you are raising a child with special needs, it seems as if they are even more vulnerable, in greater need of those protective wings being placed around them. They come into this world already with the odds stacked against them and it feels as if they are destined to face more than their fair share of stumbles, setbacks, obstacles, hurt & disappointments. So it would make sense that in that balancing act between holding on and letting go… we might choose to tip the scales in favor of holding on, being protective and creating a more insular world for our special needs children.
One of my favorite movies is “Finding Nemo.” Nemo’s dad, Marlin, is determined to keep Nemo safe, to protect him from all possible harm and to ensure that nothing bad ever happens to him. Because of his own life experiences, Marlin lives in a world of fear, angst and anxiety and he projects all of this out onto his son. But when life hands both Nemo and Marlin, an unexpected challenge, Nemo must learn to make his own way and to believe in himself. That isn’t easy, because throughout his young life, Nemo was never allowed to fail and falter and to learn from those experiences and move forward. He has never been allowed to try new things and risk disappointment or setbacks. His father, in all of the attempts to keep Nemo safe, robbed him of one of the greatest gifts a parent can give their child: a resilient spirit. The knowledge that when life knocks them down, or throws them off course, they can get through it, they can learn from it and they can emerge stronger and more ready to face the next challenge that lies ahead. And while Marlin has robbed Nemo of this important gift, he too has taken something from himself… the gift of faith. That is, after all, what it takes to let our children step out into this world… faith. We need to have faith in them, in their ability to handle and navigate the hard times. We need to have faith that they will make good choices and that they are the capable, thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate human beings that we have raised them to be. We need to have faith in those who surround them… their family, their friends, their teachers, their clergy, their counselors and all of those who will help to guide and shape them along the way. Faith and resilience, that is the balancing act. In the end, Nemo and Marlin both learn these important lessons. There is a final scene in the movie that has stayed with me always, and though I know it sounds corny to say, it has become a bit of a life philosophy for me when it comes to myself and my children. Nemo is about to swim off to school and a wiser and more faithful Marlin says to him, "Go have an adventure." It is an especially poignant moment, from the father who was once too scared to allow his son to go anywhere for fear of what could happen to him. "Go have an adventure" he says to his son.
And so today, I dropped Yael off for her first ever adventure at sleep away camp. Her sister Leora went for the first time last summer, and camp quickly became her home away from home. She even wrote an essay about it for school, citing camp as one of her favorite places in the world and she had been counting down the days until her return this summer. Yael has wanted to go for some time, but it was only now that her dad and I felt that she was truly ready. The initial plan had been to send her with her own aide, someone who would shadow her throughout the day and night. But, as we watched our daughter grow, blossom and mature in this past year, we began to question whether she truly needed this level of support, or whether this was more about easing our anxieties and our fears. We decided to ask Yael what she wanted, knowing full well that to ask that question meant that we would have to honor her wishes even if it went against every protective instinct that we had. Her choice… she wanted to go to camp "like all the other kids" and did not want an aide. She felt ready to take this big step and to try doing it on her own and we had to have faith that this would be the right decision.<
Now, while “doing it on her own” meant that she would not have her own full-time aide, it did not mean that we would do any less to help prepare the counselors & staff that would be with her at camp. No, we felt strongly that in order to help her meet with the greatest level of success as she stood on her own two feet, we must lay a strong and secure foundation for her. We are blessed that her camp, URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, Georgia, was committed to doing all that they could to create an inclusive and supportive atmosphere for Yael. We met with the Director of Camp, Bobby Harris, and his wife Ellen Zucrow, a social worker who helps to oversee those campers who come to Coleman with special needs. We shared Yael’s strengths, as well as her struggles. We shared our hopes for her, as well as our greatest fears. We held nothing back, knowing that the more open we were about our daughter and her autism, the better able the camp would be to meet her needs. We empowered them with the knowledge and understanding that they needed in order to best educate their counselors & staff about Yael. And as we met today with her counselors, her unit head, the social worker, her programming head and the many, many people with whom we are entrusting her for the next 4 weeks, it was clear that they had taken that responsibility to heart. I truly felt as if they “got it” and more importantly, in this Jewish camp, it was clear that they understood what an incredible leap of faith Yael’s father and I were taking, and they met that faith with kavod (respect), chesed (kindness) and binah (understanding). So, we unpacked her bags, settled her in and prepared for our goodbyes. And as I hugged my daughter tight, holding on with all of my might, I told her how proud I was of her for taking this very big and very brave step in growing up. And she answered me by saying, "I’m proud of you too Mommy. I’m proud of you for letting me go." "All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on."
Deborah Greene is an early childhood educator at Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, Georgia, with a background in special education. She blogs at Puzzled: Raising a Child with Autism & Other Pieces of Family Life, where this and other posts originally appeared.