Catch… and release.

Over a century ago in the UK, weathered fisherman began the practice of “catch and release” in response to the declining fish populations. Roughly 60 years ago, it was adopted in the US to provide recreational anglers a way to enjoy fishing for fun rather than food.  In the 1960’s, Australia adopted the practice and in 2003, Ireland followed suit to protect increasingly fragile fisheries.

Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure the true origins of “catch and release” can be traced to the dawn of motherhood…

Like most mothers, I’ll never forget that first “real” contraction. It came around 3 in the afternoon just after my OB/Gyn well-check; I hadn’t even left the doctor’s parking lot. I remember thinking about the gorgeous day, and how, if this was really “it”, I had squandered it away indoors. I argued with myself over the possibility it was simply another Braxton-Hicks contraction. I remember thinking that I needed to get groceries and the sick cat to the vet before I could have a baby. (Both of which I did that afternoon, much to the fear of my vet and the many shoppers and clerks at Safeway that I might deliver a baby right in front of them.)

Nope, there was nothing fake about that contraction. It was as real as the one that followed it 5 minutes later, and the one after that, and the one after that. By hour 22, and in a state of delirium caused by the absence of an epidural and other pain medications, I had almost convinced the nurse of my “she’s never moving out” theory.

Truthfully though, compared to many stories I have heard, I can’t complain. My husband was both a fabulous coach and DJ, spinning and re-spinning my Vivaldi “4 Seasons” CD. I had a terrifc labor nurse. And, my doctor provided great care, along with his own mitt.

After hours of “no progress,” the last 10 minutes went fast–very fast. Roughly 23 hours after I had left my doctor’s office, I uttered the words, “I need to push.” Upon the realization that my daughter had decided that she was, in fact, ready to “move out”–immediately– the nurse flew into action and a substitute doctor was in position. Thankfully, my doctor was in the hospital and slid into place like a baseball player “stealing home,” catching my beautiful baby girl with the second push.

Doctors typically make that first catch, but, as parents, the rest are all ours. It’s what we do. It’s what comes naturally. During life’s bumpy rides, intent on guarding our children’s physical and emotional well-being, we catch them.

When my daughters were small, I softened the falls as they learned to walk, slipped off the monkey bars, or tumbled off a bike.  I dried tears when my oldest had therapy casts repeatedly placed on both legs, soothed fears when the the younger one fussed over unexpected changes in routine, and rocked both through countless tummy aches and bad dreams. I comforted when family members died or a friendship was lost and reassured when storms brewed from frustrations over things beyond their control.

From the beginning, I’ve caught both girls, softening their landings when the patches were rough, decisions seemed tough, and they wanted to give up. It has been instinctual, much of mothering is. We don’t think about thrusting a hand out to break a fall or cross a street, we just do it.

Releasing, on the other hand, takes thought. It feels counter-intuitive to a parent accustomed to catching. Which is why, I believe, we are given ample opportunities to practice along the way.

Yes, I caught my girls as they were learning to walk, but falling is part of the process. At some point both slipped off the monkey bars, landed roughly, wiped off the dirt and climbed back up. They both ride bikes without training wheels–all because they were released to find their own way.  Slowly but surely, I have let go of their hands and taken two, three, four steps back. And, slowly but surely, they have both shown me they will be just fine.

I have recently had several opportunities to witness the growth in both of my daughters. They have both surprised and pleased me, and in ways, I have surprised and pleased myself. Perhaps, the only real constant in motherhood is surprise. Children surprise us when they roll over that first time, take their first steps, let go of our hands, push away in anger and draw close again on the other side of rebellion. Motherhood is full of surprises, not the least of which is our ability to do what is best for our children–even when it feels frighteningly uncomfortable for our “mama hearts.”

Though both girls are now teens, I’ll admit my hand still occasionally (and instinctively) thrusts out to grab, to protect. Giving my children room to fall and risk hurt has always felt “unnatural” and contrary to my maternal instincts. It is then I look to my friends with older children that have crossed this road before me. It is then I must remind myself that I am not giving my children room to fall;  I am giving them room to get up… to grow… to soar.

In the last several months, I have felt like I have been on the “fast track” of learning to release. With my oldest in Mongolia for a month, and my “baby” now working at the library weekly, I have felt the absence of a hand in mine more than ever before this summer. I have taken another step back as both have taken steps forward. Perhaps, it’s nature’s way of preparing me for the fast approaching “empty nest” years. It is another opportunity “to practice.” And, I am learning that releasing is one of the greatest acts of a mother’s love.

Catch and release– an old practice intended to maintain balance in nature. For a brief amount of time, a life is held in a hand before it is released to find its own way. Fisherman may claim the term for their purpose, but the practice, I am certain, began with mothers.

(Image credit: Woman Holding Toddler’s Hand — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis)

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