Jacob was six and Liam was three when I started writing my column in the Catholic Herald. Teenasia was a baby, living perhaps five miles away, part of struggling family I did not yet know. Jamie had not yet been born — her biological family was also struggling, unknown to me, on Milwaukee’s near-south side. My column was to be about God’s movement in family life and I named it Training Wheels.
Looking back over my early columns, a theme was protection. I wanted to protect my boys from the pain and hurt of the world. My debut column was about Jacob receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday with his first grade class. I wrote about watching Jacob approach the teacher as she said, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” And this was my response, back in 2002: I recognized that I held in my heart the tiniest hope that this phrase wouldn’t be true for my son. That Jacob would somehow beat the system. That he wouldn’t suffer and die like the rest of us. That maybe, if my husband and I could just love him enough, dust-to-dust would not apply.
While I did note, several paragraphs later, that if Jacob was to be a disciple, his life would need to include some of the suffering that discipleship requires, I remember a visceral feeling of wanting to hold Jacob tight; to wanting to never let him go. I remember forcing myself to write what I knew was true, even if I had difficulty believing that truth myself — that the goal, eventually, was not to be Jacob’s protector, but rather, to help him become the disciple he was called to be. I was very early in my process of stepping back as a parent and letting God lead. Perhaps my most noteworthy accomplishment that Ash Wednesday was that I didn’t actually leap up, run into the aisle and prevent Jacob from receiving ashes.
And now, Jacob is 17 and a senior in high school. It seems only right that having had his childhood chronicled in both my column and my subsequent book, that he should have a few hundred words of his own. We agreed to work off a common theme each month and not show each other our writing until we both were finished. This month’s theme is “growing up.”
I am sure Jacob won’t be writing about his first grade Ash Wednesday experience as he reflects on his upcoming transition in life. But for me, Jacob at the cusp of adulthood is causing all sorts of flashbacks to Jacob as a newborn or age six, or eleven. I look back and see Jacob becoming taller, smarter, more capable. But I also see myself— each year, moving a bit more from being my son’s protector to being his guide. Yes, a piece of me is still the mom of six-year-old Jacob who wants to hold on tight, but a bigger piece of me is ready to let him go — to share him.
For I was right when I wrote 12 years ago that the world includes pain and hurt. And parents, as much as we can, should protect our very young children from most of this pain and hurt. But the protection we are called to offer isn’t protection for the sake of giving our children a cushy and problem-free life. We offer our protection so they are able to grow into adults who have the strength and foundation they will need in order to be the world’s next generation of healers; we offer the protection so our children can become the disciples they are called to be. We offer protection so that our children, in turn, may find the ones they are called to protect.
You’re ready, Jacob. The training wheels are coming off. Pedal hard. Ride strong. Don’t be afraid to take it off-road.
I can’t wait to see where you go.