My eldest daughter finished primary school yesterday. She and my other daughter went back into school part-time last year after some years of full time home-educating, when I myself went back into full-time study. And what a year it’s been! Big ups, even bigger downs, a massive roller coaster ride of emotions amidst an almost continual questioning of “Are we doing the right thing?” (Finally, after more than 11 years of parenting, I realise, of course, that we can never truly know the answer to this question. So much of this journey feels like one huge experiment. Which feels frightening when what we’re talking about here is a person’s life. The shaping of a person’s ‘person’ if you like.)
Anyway, it occurred to me over the past few days of heart-wrenching decisions and tearful farewells, that I do not actually know what my eldest daughter is going through right now. Throughout my whole school life, I never experienced that sense of completion that comes when you finish one level of schooling alongside your peers. Before the end of primary school, I was taken out and sent to a different school. Before I was finished at that school, I moved to secondary school. Between my A level years, I then left secondary school to go finish up (theoretically with more ‘success’) at college in London. With each of these moves, though, alongside feeling sad and at times very, very alone, I also missed out on that shared ‘ending school’ rite of passage – something which, looking back, and also seeing what my daughter is going through now, feels crucial somehow. Not to have experienced, alongside all my fellow travellers on that horribly mixed emotional journey of school, the final end to it all. A sense of completion. Of survival even. Of witnessing each other as we both celebrated and grieved for what we were leaving behind, what we’d shared together, and what we were each stepping into in the next phase of our young lives.
(I’ve been wondering, too, these past few days how these missed experiences also feed into that sense I have of myself not fitting in. Not belonging. Not quite knowing where to put myself, because, well, actually, I’m not sure I really do fully understand what it means to be a ‘complete’ part of something. Another piece to the puzzle at least…)
So, when my husband suggested the other day that he’d like for us to think about how we might honour and celebrate this rite of passage for our daughter, I felt, suddenly, like I’d missed something big. How could I have almost let this moment pass me by? I know now, of course, that the significance of this moment did almost pass me by simply because of my own missed experiences. (And so, I’ll gently forgive myself for that one.)
Transitions like these, that we go through from the day we are born, are huge. And, I believe, we should not take them for granted. Firstly, let us begin simply by acknowledging them! Let us allow them into our psyche, and see them for what they are. Then we must find ways of honouring and celebrating them. Ways that are true and real to us as completely unique individuals and completely unique families – what works for one, after all, might not be relevant for another. We need to hold our children’s hands through these massive changes, because yes, they are scary! Those feelings of grief at having to leave behind friends and familiarity, that sense of unknowing and fear of what is to come, they are real and they are big. And, crucially, we will all continue to experience many endings and beginnings throughout our lives. We can’t take those feelings away from our children, and, indeed, I believe we do them a great disservice by asking them to feel anything differently from what they do, even though, at times, these emotions can make us feel vulnerable ourselves. I myself have felt confusion, sadness, guilt and a sense of loss of late. Uncomfortable feelings indeed. Yet, as I keep reminding my daughter, and myself: to grieve for something is to understand what it really means to care. We honour where we have come from and what we have come through by remembering it and by grieving for it.
It is in those moments, too, when we feel guilt, shame, anger, sadness, where the true gold is to be found. If only we could just let ourselves BE in those moments, and not continually strive to push them away. We are always looking for joy, for happiness, for the ‘good’ emotions – in Buddhist teachings it is exactly this that is the cause of our suffering. Not that we suffer difficult feelings, depression, loss, death even, but that we do not allow ourselves to really feel these things when they arise, nor accept them for what they are.
And so I say: Let us not let these times past unwitnessed! Let us be truly mindful of what it is to feel sadness, loss, fear and anticipation. We all grow through these experiences, but only if we can truly accept what is happening in the moment and to allow our bodies to FEEL it deeply too. Also, importantly, let us remind ourselves that these difficult emotions do not mean that we have done something badly or made the wrong decision. We need to learn to embrace them as we do all the happiness, excitement, wonder and joy that will also come our way.
I want to honour this first big transition in my daughter’s life. I want her to know that I see her and I feel her. This is one of many, many evolutions she will go through in her beautiful, precious life, and I really, really want to get it right.