Eighteen years ago, I was in the hospital. I may have been dozing between feedings or learning how to hold this new human of mine or simply staring at her with Jason beside me. He and I had no idea what we were doing. Anna turned eighteen today and we still don't really know what we're doing.
I have no more idea how to parent an eighteen year old than I did that tiny infant. I didn't cry when my mom left me at college. I didn't cry when I left home after my wedding. I did cry when my mom left to go home when Anna was one week old. I was terrified. I had no real experience with newborns and in the final weeks of pregnancy, Jason and I kept reassuring ourselves, "We can do this. Other people have figured it out. We will, too." I felt every ounce of the emptiness of those words when that tiny girl was placed in my arms. How was I supposed to know what she needed?
The way I handled it then was the way I still approach parenting - I studied her. I don't mean I read parenting books (non-fiction? boring!). I didn't go to parenting classes. I didn't have a community to ask for advice. I simply studied Anna herself. I watched for her wants and needs, her little ways. I tried some things that worked and others that didn't. I thought at the time that I was figuring out parenting. Then Bekah came along and the things that worked with Anna did not work with her. So I started all over. I studied her. And began the same long study one last time when Kate arrived.
I have been a student of my daughters for eighteen years. I know their favorite meals, the foods they won't eat, the best way to wake them up. I know who needs pushing, who needs consolation and who needs encouragement (and when - obviously they all need these things at some time or another). This knowledge doesn't mean I always get it right. Sometimes I misread the situation or my emotions take control. Sometimes I can know them and see their need and still not be able to fix it. I couldn't write a dissertation on parenting. After all, I've only studied three children. But I do know these three pretty well.
And that is why I know that eighteen year old Anna is both young and old. There are some experiences she's avoided that her peers take in stride. But she knows herself - her strengths, her limitations, her needs, her body - better than some people decades older than she is. I know that she is alternately confident and insecure (aren't we all 18?). I know that she is a hard worker, a fast learner and a rule follower. (Today at lunch she assured me that this last trait is what will ensure she is a good worker at any job she gets. I didn't tell her that her strong writing skills, inquisitive mind and willingness to speak up are just as valuable as following the rules. She will likely learn that on her own.)
For the last five years, my final Christmas gift to my girls has been a list of words that describe them. Each girl gets one word for each year of age, so Anna got seventeen words. Her final word was "ready." I think we both teared up a little when I read that one aloud. But she is ready.
Ready to finish high school.
Ready to learn new things.
Ready to vote.
Ready to spread her wings.
Maybe even ready to break a few rules.
She is ready to go.
None of this really means that *I* am ready. But I've studied Anna long and hard and I know readiness when I see it. For now, that will have to be enough.