Some Wisdom from Kahlil Gibran on the Parental Journey Toward Letting Go
This was the year I thought I would have a very spacious nest. My oldest child had already moved out for university. My daughter graduated from high school and had an apartment lined up for her boyfriend and herself. My husband and I thought it would just be us and our sixteen-year-old. But pandemics have a way of changing plans, and we now have three legal adults living at home in addition to the three of us. I am fine with the situation. We are trying to give everyone a sound start before they go off on their own. The boyfriend’s mother is not fine with this situation.
We had discussions that started with plans for a “mother to mother” talk over tea. I wanted to listen with compassion, to not take accusations personally, to recognize this young man’s mother was speaking from a place of pain. I have not yet been able to listen with the patience needed for this talk over tea to happen. I am working on it. Each of our short discussions has ended in frustration as she pleads for me to kick him out in hopes he will “go home to his own mother where he belongs”. I tell her that it’s understandable that she wants her son home with her a little longer, but that as a legal adult it is his choice to stay or go — and that it’s up to my husband and I whether we wish to offer our home as a temporary living arrangement. My argument is reasonable, but I don’t think my frustration is due to her lack of accepting the legal age of adulthood in Canada. After all, nothing magically makes us “all grown up”, no matter the law. My problem is with the idea of anybody (even our children) belonging to anybody but themselves. Maybe belonging in the sense of being part of something, being family. But we cannot possess people in the way we possess objects. The poet Kahlil Gibran said this better than I ever can in his poem titled “On Children”:
“Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself
They come through you but not from you
And though they are with you they belong not to you.”
This is a tough message for any parent, one that must be interpreted with a degree of nuance, because all parents begin their journey by fulfilling the role of guardian. As a French-English bilingual speaker, I can hear the relationship between possession and being a guardian. It’s in the French verb “garder”, which means “to keep”. I looked up the word guardian in the dictionary to be sure and found this definition, “A defender, protector, and keeper”. Truly, this is one of the most profound parts of the parent-child relationship. We start with these tiny, helpless beings that we vow to love, protect, and defend. They cry for us, and we answer. We “keep” them safe with us. We “keep” a house that they can call home. But their thoughts, choices and sense of themselves (what some would call a soul) are their own to keep. We recognize this when we say a child has “grown into their person”. We see that as they have grown their power of thought, their understanding of themselves, they are able to manifest their self-ownership. In other words, they are ready to “keep” care of themselves.
This is the point in which a parent must slowly transition from guardian to guide. I looked up the origins of the word guide (seeking the noun) and found that the verb “to guide” (meaning “to lead, direct, conduct”)had earlier roots in a Proto-Germanic word, “witanan” which meant, “to look after, guard, ascribe to, approach”, that had itself come from an Indo-European root meaning “to see”. This shared history between the word “guide” and “guard” holds the meaning of the true nature of a parent “looking after” a child. We are there to help them see. At first we help them see how to live safely by guarding them. But eventually, we become a guide; “one who shows the way”.
The scary part about showing the way is that it is simply that — showing. We cannot make our grown children go a certain way. It is their way; not ours. We can accompany but it can’t ever be our journey. All we can do is to hope to send them off in the right direction. Once again, I think this can best be said in the words of Kahlil Gibran (I just feel free to replace the god-like “He” with “Life”):
“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He also loves the bow that is stable.”
May all our children fly swift and far.