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The Poetry of Parenting

Only poets have words for so tough a job

Parenting is as much about nurturing as it is about letting go. For this writer, the hardest part was the drive when she left daughters Alice and Julia at college.

It’s that time of year again when, whether we deserve it or not, Hallmark tells us parents what a great job we’re doing raising our kids. Yet as we all know, perfection is unattainable. Toughing the job, Americans are increasingly parenting alone. Roughly a quarter of American children are raised by single parents, with nearly 20 percent single fathers, according to 2011 Census statistics.
    No matter the circumstances, our children’s road to independence follows a fine line between common sense and the nanny state.
    Parenting is as much about nurturing as it is about letting go. Done right, it means you parent yourself right out of a job, as former Maryland Poet Laureate Michael Glaser explains in a poem about watching his young daughter stare at a shedding oak:

    I cup her head in the palm of my hand,
    feel the chambers of my heart fill and empty,
    fill and empty like the words on the page fill

    my spirit, like the breath of her lungs
    as her chest rises and falls like the leaves
    on that tree, dancing in the wind and knowing,

    as they know,
    something important
    about attachment,
    about letting go.
    –Angles of Sunlight

    In today’s hyper-vigilant world, letting go isn’t as easy as it used to be. Nothing about parenting is, it seems, according to Glaser, Rachel Anastasia Heinhorst and Jeffrey Coleman, three Calvert poets invited by the County Arts Council to read poems on the subject at CalvART Gallery in Prince Frederick. They spoke of comforting and convalescing, teaching and learning, playing and worrying, cuddling and sheltering, marveling and hoping, honoring one’s predecessors and self-admonishing.
    If nurturing a child means providing material needs, instruction, love and opportunity, then freeing the child hinges most on opportunity: opportunity to test the lessons that have been taught. Heinhorst, having learned from experience, worried in verse that her child might do the same:

    The freezing days keep
    our neighborhood ponds frozen,
    so I don’t worry about my son
    discovering a forbidden bravery.

    a bravery my childhood winters gave
    when we’d gather at the lake on slow days:
    one foot, push, the other foot, stand,
    and if water finds its way atop the ice,
    two steps back
    –A Poem for Winter

    Parents in Chesapeake Country have a special appreciation for the expressions walking on thin ice and treading water. Yet what alternatives do they have to letting their children explore when parental supervision too often means sedentary indoor recreation? Over a third of children in this country are already overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Shall we aim for half by tightening supervision even more, by driving children everywhere and scheduling their lives for them?
    Fifteen states, according to freerangekids.com, have laws specifying the age at which a child can stay home alone, ranging from 14 (Illinois) to six (Kansas). Maryland specifies age eight. Yet as newsworthy parents in Silver Spring recently discovered, a six- and 10-year together were not considered old enough to walk home a mile from the park without the parents being charged with neglect.
    I cringe to think what might have happened if authorities had questioned my middle-schoolers 18 years ago when I let them explore the Naval Academy unsupervised during a historic high tide. They were cautious kids and good swimmers. They knew the campus and its coastline, so I let them go with one caveat: If anyone asks, your parents don’t know you’re here.

    I like the way Coleman’s father taught his son to fend for himself:
    Across the shore stands a tree
    I shoveled to the ground
    When I was eleven
    While my father and uncle watched,
    Telling me how my mother
    Had wanted them to plant a maple
    When I was born. “Yeah, right,”
    My father told her, “Let him plant it himself.”
    So I did
    –Gratitude

    It seems unlikely that most parents today would take the same stance. The media is full of anecdotes about the many ways in which childhood has changed in one generation. There are legitimate dangers out there in the wide world, but locking kids indoors, instilling a culture of fear and coddling, will only delay the inevitable. Indeed, child psychologists recently changed the guidelines defining adulthood from age 18 to 25 to give adolescents more time to attain milestones that used to be expected younger.
    Still, we count the days until they can drive themselves everywhere.
    “It was not my eyes so much as my prayers that followed her out of sight, not so much my prayers as my fright,” wrote Glaser of that milestone. But for me, the hardest part of letting go was the drive when I left them behind.

    You moved into your dorm a sticky day.
    We schlepped your stuff and sweat with no A.C.
    I vowed I wouldn’t bawl. I’d be OK.
    I, too, was moving on. Now I was free.

    My mind a knot of hopes, unbidden fears.
    A sign: Hydration ~ Health: Your Body’s Link.
    A stupid thought to cap our eighteen years,
    my last advice was, “Don’t forget to drink.”

    A horde of tourists swarmed Colonial town.
    Your Dad bought food. I found a bench outside.
    I would have been just fine, but sitting down
    I bumped my head, and cried, and cried, and cried.

    My mother’s death. Your sister’s crash. Now this.
    Of all that I held dear, it’s you I miss.
    –Moving Day

    Sometimes the child’s independence sneaks up on us when we need her the most, but we all have to move on.
    I hope all parents will take this special weekend to hug their children and grant them some token of responsibility they didn’t have a year ago. Be Dad or Mom enough to parent yourself right out of a job.