Bounce—Getty Images/Cultura RF
By Kristin van Ogtrop
April 13, 2017

Dear Owen,

Well, here we are. In just a few weeks you will graduate from college. Many things have happened over the past four years; the biggest is that while I was looking the other way, you became a man — someone who can drink and vote and die for our country. (I know you do the first two; I hope you never do the last.)

You’re wrapping up your college years writing your thesis (puzzles in the work of Emily Dickinson), and I’m wrapping up your college years cataloging my regrets (puzzles in the work of motherhood). When I was your age, a writing teacher told me that everything funny is a little bit sad, and everything sad is a little bit funny. For some reason this keeps coming back to me as I think about your graduation. Maybe every joy carries a bit of regret.

Remember the summer after fifth grade, when we went to Target a month before the start of middle school and bought all the supplies you would need, including a lock for your locker? Having a locker — and being able to manage a combination lock — was such a big deal! With your school supplies in hand well in advance, I thought you were prepared. And then you misplaced half the supplies in the landfill that was your bedroom. So on the last night of summer vacation, I had a 9 p.m., history-making Mom Freak-Out. Where were the notebooks? Where were the pencils? Where was the lock for your locker?! You sat cross-legged on the floor, your skinny frame surrounded by half-full Target bags, and silently began to cry. In that moment I failed you completely.

The hardest part of parenting is knowing when to step in and when to step back. You are still absentminded. (Remember spring break 2017, when your wallet was “lost” in the car for two days?) I have learned, however, that you always find your way. Combination locks! Who. Cares. But you see, my (over-)reaction that night had nothing to do with whether you had all your supplies and everything to do with wanting to feel that I had life under control as you entered the uncharted world of combination locks and cell phones and walking to school every day with a friend instead of a parent.

So I apologize for that, and for all the other times when I took my issues and made them yours.

I apologize, too, for the times I co-opted your triumphs. Perhaps this is true of all parents, but one of my greatest mistakes as a mother was to conflate your success with mine. Every accomplishment of yours meant less working-mom guilt for me: if you got an A on a test, I gave myself an A; if you made the varsity team, so did I. I was raised by a loving stay-at-home mom, and by working full-time when you were growing up, I feared you would be less smart, less happy, less emotionally sound. (Turns out that was me.)

I’m sorry I didn’t pay more attention, didn’t write down every single thing you said in a notebook while you were still the little boy who would crawl into bed with me and say, “Let’s hold hands.” The boy who wanted nothing more than to be by my side, before you became an overscheduled teenager and then a polite young man who has learned how to gracefully deflect a prying parent. I know that little boy is still in there somewhere, and I know this is the natural order of things. But now you are like an Emily Dickinson poem: beautiful, brilliant, mysterious.

I have taught you many things: how to ask for what you need; how to silence distraction when it’s time to focus; how to water a plant, write a thank-you note, iron a shirt, comfort a friend (or a mother). But you have taught me much more. I now know, for example, what bougie means. And I think I know how to let go.

Years ago I read a parenting book that included this advice: When your child does something amazing, do not say, “I am so proud of you.” Instead say, “You should feel so proud of yourself.” That is a hard habit to break, inserting the parental I and confusing your child’s identity with your own. Forgetting that it’s not about you. Stepping in when you should be stepping back. And so I will say to you, Owen, on the day you don that cap and gown: My beloved child, you should feel so proud of yourself. It was all you.

Love,

Mom

This appears in the April 24, 2017 issue of TIME.

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