Elizabeth Lesser's key

Photo: Burcu Avsar

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All children are on a journey from childhood to adulthood, but there's an equally momentous journey that every parent must take. Your children train you in their care, and just when you get the hang of sacrificing for them, of protecting them, of cutting out whatever you need to cut out of your life to give them your full attention, they become teenagers and pull away from you. It comes as a heart-stopping shock. Or at least, it did for me. When my first son began to show signs of the rude fact that he would indeed grow up, I did some research to better understand how teenagers begin to assert their identities. I found a book by the poet Robert Bly called Iron John, which says that a boy must "steal the key from beneath his mother's pillow" to become a man. A child has to reclaim himself from you, to say thanks for sheltering me and caring for my soul all these years, but now I have to be the master of my destiny. (Of course, they never say it so nicely.) When it comes time for the parent to lift her wing and let the birds fly, if she puts feelings of guilt or shame or fear onto the kid—which we all do, and I did my share of it—they have to push back. In fact, the push is what helps them break free. I have three sons, all in their 30s now, and each stole the key in different ways. My oldest was a careful fellow; he didn't test me the way the younger two did. They were much wilder customers. But in each case, letting go felt like an impossible task, because it flew in the face of everything I'd been trained for. The best I could do was try to remember each time that it was my loss to feel and work through, not my son's. I had a journey to take, and so did he; we had the same journey for many years and now they had to separate. When I was visiting my parents' house during my sons' teenage years, I found an old key and asked if I could have it. (I don't know that I've ever quite "stolen the key" from my mother, but that's another story.) For years I kept the key on my desk, and when things got tough and I felt the grief of letting my children go, or things got crazy as they always do with teenagers, it would remind me to have faith, to trust them, and to get out of their way as they became the men they were meant to be.

—Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder and senior advisor, Omega Institute