The joy and pain of letting go when a child turns 18

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"Have you called to make sure you --"

The eldest teenager put up a warning hand.

"Mummy," she said, "You don't need to remind me. In fact, you're not allowed to remind me. I'm a legal adult now."

"I know, darling, but I --"

"Nope," she said kindly but firmly. "You have to trust me. I can handle things on my own."

I smiled in a sheepish, pained sort of way and pressed my lips together to stop any further reproaches.

She was right. And I had promised. For years, in fact, I'd been assuring our five children that when they reached the age of majority, I would stop bossing them around. To be honest, I was looking forward to it.

For one thing, it's a family tradition. My austere New England grandfather had warned my father that he would stop telling him what to do when my dad turned 18. My father remembers greedily anticipating the moment of independence and finding himself surprisingly bereft when it arrived. Only when he was no longer subject to his father's authority did he realize how protective it had been.

Still, the transition was right and good. Thus, my father paid me the same courtesy when I turned 18, turning off the flow of advice and warnings and reminders just as neatly as if he'd turned the handle on a faucet. It didn't mean I couldn't get his guidance, but now I'd have to ask for it. The change made me feel respected, mature and grateful to have such trust shown in me.

So you can imagine how much I have been looking forward to granting my own children this benison.

Early this past summer, I joked with my eldest that I needed to cram in my "helpful suggestions" before the fateful birthday arrived. It was all in fun, of course, because I knew I was quite ready to let go.

Indeed, I gratified myself with smug little fantasies of how it would be. I pictured myself in later years (vaguely seated on a throne, if you want to know the truth) exuding noble restraint as my adult children earnestly sought my counsel. I would be cool and sagacious! Unless asked, I would not interfere!

So how's it going?

Well, to continue the metaphor: rather damply. Despite the best intentions, and 18 years of mental preparation, the maternal faucet continues to drip. Not a week has gone by without a trickle of "don't forget's" or "have you finished's" or an ultramaddening "Sweetheart, you really need to ..."

The experience has given me an odd and not unwelcome feeling of solidarity with generations past. It cannot have been easy for my grandfather to keep quiet when my father, like virtually all 18-year-olds, made one or two imprudent decisions. It cannot have been effortless for my father to refrain from commenting as I made my own blunders. This knowledge strengthens me: If they could turn off the spigot, so can I.

"Um, Mummy?"

It was the legal adult, stopping by my desk a moment later. She held out a banana.

"Can you open this for me?"

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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