Time to Leave the Nest
01 October 1991

For long years I nurtured my children and protected them from trouble and suffering. Now that my family have grown up, my protective instinct won't lie down.

Invite a fairy godmother to your baby's christening and if all goes well she will bestow on the infant the gifts of health, wealth and happiness.

Either I had no fairy godmother, or her gifts to me were less conventional. As I grew up I felt that there were two sides of my nature at war with each other: a desire for stability and acceptance, to put down roots, to grow cabbages, so to speak; and a desire to do something that counted, to have a small part, even if unrecognized, in shaping events for the better.

One evening I saw a play that opened a new dimension in life. That evening set the match to a latent spirituality. I left the theatre feeling there was a purpose in life for me. I consigned the metaphorical cabbages to their patch and the second half of me won.

Now, half a lifetime later, am I brave enough to say that I hope my own children, and my friends' children, will make that same choice: that they, too, will come to know God and decide to take care of the world instead of merely taking care of themselves? We all live by dreams in one form or another. Without them we would be cold-hearted. But dreams have to be grounded in reality and that second choice brings its share of suffering and disillusionment, as well as joy and vivid colours. I may choose risk and cherish faith for myself, but I fear it for the people I love. And so the cabbage-patch syndrome rears its head again.

Part of the difficulty is my maternal instinct. For long years I nurtured my children and protected them from trouble and suffering. Now that my family have grown up, my protective instinct won't lie down. It has become ingrained. I envy those birds who heedlessly cast their offspring to the winds, leaving them to fly on uncharted courses to an unknown destination. And young human beings must often envy the fledglings their freedom.

It takes a special kind of courage for a mother to let go. The dangers of adult life seem so much greater than the cut knees and whooping coughs of childhood. I often ask myself if I have prepared my children well enough. Are there issues I have funked? Were there times when I was too cowardly to understand that love is harsh as well as warm?

Parents nowadays are a beleaguered species. The consequences of bullying or abusing your children may seem obvious, but it is the unknown failures that are so unnerving. Do children have to go through life scarred by their parents? Do parents have to be burdened by the guilt of all the mistakes they have made, knowingly or unknowingly?

From the depth of my heart, I believe the answer is no. We inflict some of the deepest and most lasting hurts on each other at home. But cure is possible. It begins when you touch the abscess and let the poison out. Then a mysterious healing is available, like clean water on the spirit.

The nature of life is painful. Injustice, illness, accident, bereavement, heartache and failure lie all along the way. What is so extraordinary is the capacity of the human being for renewal. It is here that children and parents, at whatever stage of life, can help each other - to face difficulties, to face the truth, to accept healing.

So I consign my protective instinct to the cabbage patch where it belongs. I would consider those fledgling human beings deprived if they did not dream and launch out onto the winds. How else will they discover that their lives count for something in the great scheme of things? Or that the standards they choose to live by are not just a personal matter? How else will they come to understand that this life is a bridge and not a dead end?

I hope to meet a fairy godmother at the next christening I go to. I will suggest courage as the choicest christening gift - for both infant and parents!

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