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Learning to Let Go

Let's face it: A child's milestone can be a mother's meltdown. I was completely prepared for my son Sam's "separation" from me on his first day of preschool  -- or so I thought. I'd coached him on what to expect, and I was ready to deal with any jitters he might have.

Yet as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the school, the sight of my not-quite-3-year-old son in his tiny sneakers and backpack filled me with such a sense of loss that my stomach wound itself into a knot. When Sam reached for his teacher's hand and dutifully walked down the stone path leading to the building, another mom joked knowingly, "He didn't even look back!"

And then it hit me: When you're a parent, you basically work yourself out of a job. Not only was my son going to grow apart from me, I was going to have to let go.

Of course, separation doesn't take place in a single moment. It's a process that unfolds over years. Fortunately (for us and for them), there's a natural order to our kids' development. Each bit of progress continually requires a child to separate or leave behind the familiar; our task is to offer support and encouragement. To help smooth the way for you and your child, here's what to expect:

Kimberly Brown Seely, a mom of two boys, also writes for Travel + Leisure and Town & Country.

Babies

In his first weeks, your baby's almost entirely focused on you. But at about 4 months, as he starts noticing the world around him, stuffed animals, balls, and lamp cords all compete with you for attention. Toward the end of the first year, he'll begin to point to things, wanting you to see what he sees. This means he understands himself in relation to other things as well as other people. "It's no longer you and your baby staring into each other's eyes, it's both of you looking out at the world together," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib.

It's easy to feel pangs of regret as he moves from constant communion with you to being able to entertain himself with a rattle or learning to fall asleep by himself instead of being rocked. Yet these steps are reasons to celebrate. He feels secure enough to turn away from you because he knows you love him.

One bittersweet milestone for many nursing moms: weaning. No matter when or why it happens, it's perhaps one of the most symbolic stages of separation between mother and baby. "I weaned Lucinda at 13 months," says Jessica Kowal of Seattle. "She was down to one feeding, and it just felt like the right time to do it. I'd usually breastfeed her first thing in the morning, but instead my husband took her and gave her some cereal. She didn't even bat an eye. I hung around upstairs, waiting for her to ask for me. She never did, but I realized I really wanted her to."

Initially, Kowal felt as if she'd lost touch with her baby, but Lucinda still wanted her mommy time  -- after Dad fed her breakfast. "We developed a new way of cuddling; she'd lie on my chest and we'd snuggle in bed." Kowal soon realized that even though she was letting go, she could create other ways to stay close to her baby.

When you think about it, almost all the hard decisions a mom makes (Is it okay to leave her with a sitter for the night? Should I let him walk to school by himself?) are about giving up control, as opposed to tightening your grip; about relinquishing power, not gaining it. The whole point of raising children, after all, is to nurture a separate individual  -- someone who isn't afraid to disagree with us, who can choose to leave us, and who might even make serious mistakes. I believe that each time my kids pull away from me, they'll return on a more mature level  -- and our relationship will be all the richer for it.

In the end, being a mom means falling utterly in love, yet knowing that one day soon not only will your babies be gone, they'll leave you for others. And in fact, that is your role: to pay great attention while nudging them gently out of the nest.

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