Marking The End Of An Era

I remember like it was yesterday, how our now 18-year-old came into the world, mostly quietly, so tiny, but with a seemingly natural curiosity about the new realm she had just entered. This kid was a born observer; we knew right away. And I am not sure which became primary, nature or nurture, but I think our decision to follow her lead and make space for her to be exactly who she was meant to be was wise even if we did not realize it then. 

Parenthood is weird like that – sometimes you make decisions or do things and you have no idea if they are the ‘right’ ones at the time – only eventually, if you’re lucky, do you get to see the positive results. Babies are born so helpless and imprintable and you, their parents, are just so full of hope and optimism and ‘what can be’. As a Jewish mom, I have poured all of it – maybe a little too much – into those once-empty containers, wanting so much to leave my imprint and at the very least, hoping even just a little bit will stick.

And while high school graduation certainly does not mark the end of parenting one’s child, it certainly indicates a landmark moment that divides childhood from adulthood, and to some extent, dependence from independence. We are not done here but we now transition from being coaches to being consultants. The bulk of the imprinting is complete.

In the intervening years, so much emphasis gets placed on grades, tests, GPAs, SATs, ACTs, APs, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, and volunteer opportunities: achievement, achievement, achievement. And time is spent working towards these goals in service of the promise of a better future and with ingrained cultural values about education (and likely some generational trauma on the side). I know the drill so well because I was one of those kids too. I’m still that type of parent, admittedly. I am a classic Type A perfectionist, a first-born sibling and a Virgo to boot. And I have demanded so much of that with my own three kids – none of which I regret, by the way. I have pushed them as their coach and sometimes they have thanked me when they understand why.

And then tonight at my oldest daughter’s high school graduation, it hit me. While excellent GPAs and lots of other qualifications open many doors, it’s certainly not the point of parenthood, of rocking, feeding, and changing these helpless babies through sleep deprivation into toddlerhood, through the labor-intensive preschool years, past the toothless stage of elementary school, the awkward stages of middle school, and finally through the rigor and sometimes cruelty of high school. Academic or athletic or leadership success is awesome and should absolutely be celebrated and rewarded with opportunity. But our primary job is to instill pride of self and identity, equip our kids with plenty of knowledge about our histories, and perhaps most critically, lead by example through Jewish practice not just outsourced to our community’s institutions but in our own homes on a regular basis.

What I learned from my high school graduate is that the most important thing I could have done as a parent is to teach her to be proud of exactly who she is and where she comes from. In this fraught time, when so many of her peers might shy away from overt symbols of identity, my daughter wore her Magen David carefully and beautifully outlined in rhinestones on her graduation cap. And I think, nervous as she may have been, it felt empowering to her to do so. As I said to her after the ceremony: “I’m so incredibly proud of all you have done but I’m most proud of you for being proud of who you are.”

This is kvelling. This is nachas. This is what being a parent is all about and it’s all that will be left at the end of the day – the legacy we leave behind so our kids can and hopefully will perpetuate our peoplehood. Not for nothing, we’ve survived thousands of years this way. And as I consider sending her off into the unknown of her college campus in the fall, I at least feel more at ease than at any time in the past 8 months, through a challenging post-October 7th application and decision process, that she will thrive as a proud Jew, unafraid to show up in the world exactly as she is and was always meant to be.