The paradox of parenting

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, October 2012

Both mother and daughter survived the trip.

By the time this issue of Focus is out I’ll be counting down the last two weeks of our eldest daughter’s year-long adventure in Southeast Asia (The emphasis is mine: Who knew that time could be such a trickster, crawling through the endless hours of a loved one’s absence while flying through life’s usual rigours at the same time?)

Parenting is such a paradox, an intense, decades-long process of both holding on and letting go. From the start you are the pillar, the clichéd candle in the window, but also the one subtly encouraging independence at every turn. You watch approvingly for signs of self-reliance but are nonetheless rattled when they tell you to back off so they can do it their own way. It gets more challenging during the teen parade, when you find yourself needed in two places at once—up front providing support and guidance, and at the rear with the proverbial dustpan, sweeping up the inevitable emotional fallout.

In the end most children grow up to become thoughtful, capable adults who rightly insist on seeing the world through their own eyes. For my daughter, that meant stepping out of a well-established comfort zone to experience life in a completely different setting. Fortunately, she would be going with her boyfriend, and after months of meticulous planning they left for the Philippines just after Thanksgiving.

“I shall not worry, I shall not dwell on catastrophe,” I vowed to myself, even though worry has been a long-time companion, having wormed its way into my bones at an early age when I lost two young siblings to a rare cancer, and again in my early 20s when a farming accident claimed my beloved older brother. Anxiety rises easily in my throat when the emails dry up and I’m faced with a raw awareness that I wouldn’t know where to begin searching for my daughter if she really did vanish.

There were other worries too. One morning she phoned us before sunrise from a remote Filipino island on a borrowed cell phone, in pain and fearing that a bladder infection had worked its way into her kidneys. “There’s no clinic here, no power, and the ferry isn’t coming for another three days,” she said, her voice betraying a rising panic. Fortunately we were able to rouse a physician friend on another phone and he, by talking to her through us, confirmed the infection and prescribed exactly the broad-base antibiotic she happened to be carrying in her medical kit. She emailed hours later to say that she was feeling much better; by then my own nerves had pretty much calmed down as well.

They spent Christmas in Singapore and in January arrived in Cambodia where she spotted a job in her own profession and landed it, “just for the experience.” They settled into a Spartan apartment and plunged wholeheartedly into total cultural immersion. They travelled on the weekends and made many friends. They also shrugged off the odd intestinal ailment and hair-raising experience—what I know about these is probably the censored version.

Throughout their travels, the photos and insightful writing have reflected their happiness and heightened sense of humility and selflessness. But lately trepidation has also crept in, about coming home and dreading the anticipated struggle to find a revised niche in an old landscape. I’m not surprised. I know she’s looking forward to apple cider, knit sweaters, autumn colours, organic produce, clean air, clean streets, her piano and her bike. But I also know she’ll have trouble with the way we carelessly take our largesse for granted, something that didn’t sit well with her even before she left.

For me it’s very straightforward: I’ve missed her more than I could have imagined—the whole family has. I’m proud of her and can’t wait to see her again.

I know the tectonics of my parenting role are about to shift again to reflect our evolving history and story. Now she’ll be the sage, brimming with new wisdom, and I’ll be the student, eager to learn every lesson she offers. Still, my candle of support will remain on the window sill. I expect she’ll be happy to see it there.

Writer Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic would like (with tongue in cheek) to assure all of her daughter's friends that she’ll eventually get around to sharing her.