My fourteen-year-old daughter just learned to ride a bike. She never learned when she was younger because for a long time we lived in apartments and there was no place to keep a bike (or a tricycle) and no place to ride it either, really. By the time we got around to getting our kids bikes, she was too tall to ride the ones that came with training wheels, and being somewhat uncoordinated (she comes by this trait honestly, i.e. genetically) she found trying to learn pedaling and balancing at the same time too frustrating–not to mention painful–and she quit. She made some other half-hearted attempts to learn over the years, but unfortunately it never became any less frustrating (or painful) and finally she just became resigned to never learning.
Of course it’s kind of embarrassing to be fourteen and not know how to ride a bike. Plus, she has been wanting to get more exercise. So this summer she asked if I would help her practice. She couldn’t get started by herself, so I had to hold the bike steady for her while she got her balance. This is a lot harder to do with a fourteen-year-old than a six-year-old. Or a nine-year-old. But I was motivated, so I made it work. Once she got some momentum, I’d tell her I was letting go. Then I’d actually let go.
Actually letting go was a lot harder than I’d anticipated. She’d had a lot of nasty spills in the past that had inspired all the quitting, and I really didn’t want her to get hurt again and decide it wasn’t worth it. I would end up holding on longer than was necessary–or, trying not to hold on too long, I would let go too soon. I decided it would be smarter to have her tell me when to let go. Her balance got a lot better. Soon I was letting go before she told me and she never noticed. Unfortunately, she was still lacking confidence. She would get distracted by the sound of cars driving in the neighborhood or her little sister riding her scooter next to her and get afraid she was going to get hit by or run into something and she’d stop the bike so she wouldn’t fall. Eventually she was able to complete two full circles around the block without stopping. But she still couldn’t get started by herself.
I told her that she was doing great, that I was hardly helping her at all, and if she went out and practiced every day, she’d be doing it on her own by the end of the week. Unfortunately, I had to go with my son to cub camp that week, and when I wasn’t at cub camp I was busy with other things. We managed to practice Monday and Tuesday, but Wednesday just didn’t happen and I was afraid inertia would take over (as it so often does with our family).
On Thursday I came home from running errands and Mary said, “Oh–by the way, I rode my bike while you were gone and I started all by myself.”
“You did? That’s great.”
“All by yourself?”
It was sort of anti-climactic.
I realized I had been looking forward to watching her reach this milestone with my own eyes. (That is, watching it with my own eyes. It would have been difficult for her to reach it with my eyes.) I mean, I knew it was going to be awesome. Fourteen years old and riding her bike on her own for the first time! Do you know how long I’d been waiting for this? (About eight years.) I was proud and happy for her, but also a little sad because I’d missed the big moment.
Then I thought, “Maybe what she really needed was for me not to be there.”
Last month she went to Girls Camp. Because Mary has Asperger’s Syndrome and our stake’s policy is that all disabled campers have a parent at camp with them, I went to Girls Camp too. I ended up working in the kitchen, which was the best of all possible worlds (in a world where me skipping Girls Camp altogether isn’t possible). I was technically there, but I was also not there. Mary has had a hard time with camp in the past (and with church in general). Her first year she only lasted two days. This year she made it through the whole week, though there were few bumps here and there. She hated all the camp songs, especially “Mormon Boy” (that’s my girl), and she hated all the screaming. (Do all young women scream at camp? Ours do.) Occasionally she would just get annoyed with something and need to take a break. Throughout all this, I was slaving away in the kitchen, blissfully unaware of any problems except what I learned after the fact.
On Bishopric Night, after dinner, I got a break from the kitchen and went in search of her (since I hadn’t seen her all day). I found the cabin our ward was meeting in and saw her sitting by herself. Her hair had been braided in corn rows. (This is another way in which Girls Camp differs from Boy Scout camp, I’ve heard.) I asked how she was doing and she said she was fine, but she was a little worried about the bishop’s discussion because she had been to a bishop’s fireside the Sunday before camp started and gotten upset by something that was said and had to leave, which was embarrassing, and she was afraid the same thing would happen tonight. I said it was unlikely that the bishop would be talking about the same thing (she has some trigger topics–marriage, gender roles, gay rights, For The Strength Of Youth…just to name a few), but even if she did get upset, it was okay for her to leave the room. “I know,” she said, “but I just don’t want to.” Meaning that she didn’t want to have to. Not knowing what other advice or comfort I could give her and needing to get back to the kitchen so we could start prepping for tomorrow’s breakfast, I said, “It’ll be okay,” gave her a hug and walked out feeling lame and useless…and a little relieved that I’d be far away in the kitchen, whatever ended up going down.
Later that night I was deeply engaged in the seemingly futile task of sweeping the kitchen floor. (Are kitchen camp floors ever really clean?) Our YW president came in and said, “Rebecca, Mary gave the most amazing testimony in our meeting tonight.”
“It was so beautiful and obviously heart-felt. You know, sometimes she has a hard time getting the words out and she’ll start and stop, but this time everything just flowed so naturally.”
“I wish you could have been there for it.”
“Me too,” I said.
Apparently it was a really good testimony–or at least a remarkable one because many people stopped by to tell me about it, and they were also sorry that I had missed it. It was a big deal. I was sorry that I had missed it, but I guessed it was my own fault. On the other hand, I thought, maybe if I had been there, I would have cramped her style. Maybe she wouldn’t have borne her testimony in front of me. Maybe it was better this way.
And something else occurred to me too: I can’t expect to be there for every one of my daughter’s milestones. I watched her take her first step and heard her say her first word, but the older she gets, the more independent she becomes–hopefully–and the less eye-witnessing I get to do. This is especially true for spiritual milestones. When my daughter has the most significant experiences of her life, I probably won’t be there. My mother wasn’t there for mine. And that was okay. Some of the most important things in life can’t be shared. They happen inside us. Sometimes they can’t even be explained.
Usually when people draw parallels between their parenting experience and the way God teaches and nurtures his earthly children, I feel a little eye-rolling coming on. Generally, I don’t recommend that mere mortals try parenting God-style, unless you want Child Protective Services visiting your home on a regular basis. But sometimes cutting the proverbial apron strings is the only thing to do. It’s hard, as a parent, to let go. That’s not a novel insight. Sometimes you have to let go and let the bad things happen. Other times you have to let go and let good things happen without you.