It was both an honor and a pleasure to speak to the graduates and their moms at the Notre Dame Prep Mother-Daughter brunch this morning! Girls – and moms – it’s true: “you’re gonna be great!”
Well, here we are, ladies. It is so good to be with all of you, graduates and moms, in what is, in so many ways, a new place for us. And this is the Mother-Daughter brunch, which means that it is very nearly graduation. Speaking for the moms, well, we can hardly believe it. Our little girls have become young women, and only the briefest flashes of their baby faces are visible in those gorgeous grown up ones. Where did the time go? It just doesn’t seem like all that long ago when we moms dropped you girls off at NDP for the first time as nervous freshmen. Your backpacks bulged with all of your textbooks, your stiff-backed saddles were blistering your feet. Your bright blue starched dresses hung – obediently – all the way down to your sweet little ninth-grade knees.
What the moms didn’t tell you girls then – and moms, I hope you’ll forgive me telling them now – was that we were nervous, too. Oh sure, we waved and smiled and shouted “You’re gonna be great!” with what we hoped was convincing confidence. That part was absolutely true: you would be great, and we knew that you would. But besides that, we were mostly faking it. We were mostly pretending to know what we were doing.
And as you turned and walked on, on that first day, a little part of our heart went with you, because it always does, whenever and wherever you go. And because it hurts to break off part of a heart, many of us cried a little in the car that first day, and on some other days, too, over the years, along the way. Oh, we always wiped our eyes quickly, and added a huge smile as we waved in the other merging moms. But there were days, for everyone there were days, in which we drove on lost in the kind of private, ferocious prayers that only mothers pray. When we just prayed that you would find, that day, in the halls of NDP, the one thing that our heart knew that yours needed: friendship or fun, confidence or comfort. And perhaps most of all, the kinship of God in the girls with you there.
Several Septembers ago, my oldest daughter’s senior portrait proofs arrived in the mail, and we opened them with excitement, poring through the poses to find our favorites. There were the ones with the purple shirt and the black one, ones with arms crossed, and the ones with her leaning over to the side. We all agreed that they had turned out great. And when we were all done looking, and making our stack of the very best to choose from, she sighed and said quietly, “I guess I thought I’d be prettier by now.”
I knew exactly what she meant. She was not denying that the photos had turned out beautifully, that her hair and makeup looked terrific. She wasn’t saying that she didn’t look every bit the gorgeous graduating senior. It wasn’t that.
It was just that even at this auspicious and long-awaited moment – her senior portrait! – she was still, well, her. She had not been transformed into a completely different version of herself. Inside, she still felt mostly the same, which was an awful lot like the freshman whose picture sat among the rows of tiny black and whites in the back of the yearbook. Pages and years and what had seemed like an impossible distance behind the all-grown-up seniors in glossy, full-color, quarter-page portraits in the front.
And this is so often how it is. We find ourselves at a milestone, a moment, a place that we’ve longed and waited for. And we suddenly realize that we had thought that by the time we arrived there, we’d be different, that we’d have been somehow transformed. That we’d have learned all we needed to know. That we would feel, as we arrived, certain and ready, prepared and deserving. It is so easy to think that people doing big things are different from us. That they are sure they are up to the task.
But every mom here remembers a day, many years ago, when a way younger, way less tired version of herself took a baby girl into her arms for the very first time. And amazingly, instinctively, we all did the exact same thing: we cradled her tiny head in our hand and held her close to our chest. We felt our hearts beating together. We did this not because we knew what we were doing, not because we’d been transformed into someone completely different. Not because we knew all we would need to know, or because we felt altogether prepared. We did it because it was the only thing we could think to do.
And we have repeated this same motion – cradling our girl’s head, pulling her close – in moments both awful and joyful since, on days when we knew it was the right thing to do and on days when we had absolutely no idea, over and over again, from that first moment all the way up until now.
Because the truth is that even at the big moments, when someone hands us a baby girl or a diploma, the key to the dorm room or to the empty nest, we are often startled to find that we are still more or less our same old selves. We look around at the girls, young or old, who are with us in this new place and we notice that they all seem to know what they are doing. We wonder if we could have somehow missed a memo, an email, a class – maybe even a whole semester? We begin to believe that we’re the only ones who feel unsure, who are secretly so nervous, who often lay awake at night feeling not enough, who are so afraid that we aren’t ready. We feel undeserving of a quarter page photo in glossy living color and think we might be more comfortable somewhere smaller, on the back pages, and in black-and-white.
But the thing is that when we, our same old selves, just keep going, doing the only thing we can think do – one thing at a time, one day at a time, one year at a time – well, we can pass some pretty great milestones. We can do big things. We can make it all this way.
Together, ladies, all those years ago, This is what we started. And look how far we’ve come.
And there is so much ahead, too, and even though I was asked to give a “reflection”, which technically suggests a looking-back, and even though I have adult children so am really, really working on not giving advice unless it is “specifically asked for”, I just can’t help but look forward, too, and to say to all of us:
To the girls, take courage with you as you go forward, so that you can know and show and trust the instincts of your unchanging heart, that marvelous part of you which is always the same: the part that was and is still the baby girl and the nervous freshman and the gorgeous, grown up graduate. And to the moms, too, let us take courage, trusting in the enough-ness of a mother’s heart, the same one that beat in the young mom who was exactly as ready as she needed to be, the mom who figured out the next right thing to do that first day and the many days since, and the mom who sits here today, having brought them them both all this way.
Take courage, unprepared as you may feel for the finishing-up and the dropping-off, the moving-out and the moving-on, the letting-go of all we’ve known up until now. Because with courage you can be kind when it is costly, and tell the truth when it is difficult. With courage you can step out when you are nervous, and press on when you are uncertain. Courage will open your tender heart just enough so that you can see the tenderness in the hearts of those around you, and to let them know they’re not alone. With courage you can trust your instincts enough to just do the next, right thing, even if it is the only thing you can think to do. With courage you can make it the whole way.
We are here today in this moment which is the mother-daughter brunch, and next week we’ll be celebrating the milestone that is graduation. But before too long, there will be another: a steamy, late-summer day when a girl brimming with excitement will be carrying boxes into another new place. And secretly, that girl might be wondering if she has, in those boxes and in herself, everything she needs to be successful. To be ok. If she is smart enough, and sufficiently prepared. If she really deserves to be there, if she has made the right choice. If she has learned all she needs to know to leave home, if she will fit in. If she is really ready to take up her God-given space in the world, in all its glossy, living color.
And girls, if this happens, just know that your mom will secretly be feeling many of the same things. But she will be very busy not copping to it, and instead will be driving you crazy fussing with your new comforter, and insisting on the family picture by the college sign. Reminding you of things you totally already know, and saying over and over, at random and somewhat bizarre intervals: “You’re gonna be great!”
This is because our mother’s heart, the part of us that is always the same, knows better than anyone the part of you that is always the same. Our heart has beat with yours since the beginning; we ought to know. You will be great and we know that you will. That is still, and always, true.
But besides that, we will not know much of anything for sure, and will be mostly faking it. Inside we will be freaking out a little and doing the only things we can think to do. Which, in this case, will include fussing with the comforter so we can feel like you’re tucked in. And getting a family picture so that we know it isn’t really all over. And reminding you of stuff we are afraid you might forget because it has always been our job to keep you safe. And saying, over and over, the one thing that we do know for sure is true, so that it looks to you – and feels to us – like we know what we are doing.
Because the truth is that we, the moms, thought we’d be better at this by now. That it would be easier. We thought we would feel, once we got here, more sure that we had both learned and taught all that we would need to. We thought that, by now, we would feel more ready to let you go.
So when it is time for you to walk on, remember that you take a little part of your mom’s heart with you. And that it’s painful when you break a piece off of a heart. So, look, you might as well know now that again this time there’s going to be some crying. It might happen secretly in the car, while your mom is driving home. It might happen two weeks later when she begins to call your name before remembering that you aren’t there. And it just might, to your abject horror, happen right there at drop off, in public, in front of the dorm and the brand-spanking-new friends who are waiting for you to go to the orientation thing. And if it does, forgive us. Forgive us even if for a minute we forget ourselves, and find ourselves cradling your head in our hand, pulling you close to our chest.
It is all we have ever really known to do.
And know that as we drive away, we will be praying the same prayer as the first day, and on all the other days since. Only this time it won’t just be for you, but will be for ourselves, too. We will be praying, in private, ferocious mother-prayers, that both our girl and her mom will find – in this moment, at this milestone, in this new, and for the moms, slightly emptier place – all that we need. Friendship, fun, confidence, comfort. And, perhaps most of all, the kinship of God in the women who are with us there.