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Against My Maternal Instinct

My heart sank as our taxis drove away in opposite directions. Large tears rolled down my cheeks. What had just occurred felt unnatural to me, as if my daughter had been ripped from my arms. It went against my every maternal instinct.
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Photo by Cara Bradley

We quickly hugged and kissed on a narrow sidewalk alongside a busy street in Cusco, Peru. We had only a moment to bid farewell to our 20-year-old daughter Julianna, who was spending 4 months in South America. We had savored our last day together with a leisurely hike to an Incan site followed by a long lunch. Then all of a sudden, our precious week together was over, and it was time to say goodbye. As we kissed and hugged, my husband and I were rushed into an airport taxi as my baby girl, with a large backpack and all, ducked into a small taxi.

Just like that, she was gone.

My heart sank as our taxis drove away in opposite directions. Large tears rolled down my cheeks. What had just occurred felt unnatural to me, as if my daughter had been ripped from my arms. It went against my every maternal instinct.

You see, Julianna wasn't going back to a cozy home with a host family. She wasn't studying abroad and staying in a dorm with college friends. My baby girl was headed to an unknown hostel in a foreign land all alone. Granted she had met up with some friends who were living in Cusco, but in this mother's eyes, she was alone.

It's the "alone" part that kept tugging at my heartstrings and had me in tears.

"This is what she wants," I repeated to myself as we boarded the flight from Cusco to Lima. It's the idea she approached us with last winter. It's what she documented in a thorough PowerPoint presentation to us last spring. She wanted to go to South America "not to study, but to learn." She wanted to learn about herself and to learn about the world.

Julianna had planned it all out. In the beginning of her trip, she'd get direct work experience with a socially innovative company located on the border of the Ecuadorian Rainforest. At the end of her trip, she'd work on a sustainable farm on the eastern coast of Costa Rica. In the middle, she would travel alone, exploring South America while meeting new travel buddies along the way.

It's that "alone" part that is tearing this mother apart.

I respect Julianna's desire to be independent. She's a chip off the old block when it comes to doing things her own way. Still, I'm a mother -- her mother -- who is striving to be modern. Nonetheless, I'm a mother who cannot cut off my natural maternal instincts to protect and nurture my young ones.

As the plane took off from Lima, the pit in my stomach grew larger. What was I doing?

The answer: I was leaving my child unprotected in the big world.

As the plane continued to soar higher and higher into the clouds, every cell in my body wanted to turn around, pick her up, and bring her home. My natural instinct was to return her to the nest -- my nest. Deep down, though, I knew the hard truth: My nest no longer served her. As much as I'd like to think otherwise, the world is her home now.

My natural maternal instinct is to nurture and protect her, no matter how old she gets or where her adventures take her.

And so I did what every mother must eventually do. I let go. As my plane flew away from South America, the tears flowed once again. The gnawing feeling in my stomach returned knowing that my baby girl was alone in a foreign land. I went against my every maternal instinct and acknowledged I had to let her go.

I had to let her spread her wings and fly on her own.