The dogs are last to know when the kids are coming and the first to know when they are leaving. They sense the undertow of the pack, but once the wave overtakes the house, the pooches delude themselves into thinking the kids are back for good. And sometimes, I do too.
With kids in their 20’s that come more often than they did when they were in college, I’m trying my damndest not to jump on the first hovercraft circling my empty nest. Even though I can see the dogs slinking into a corner when the kids prepare their exit, I’m caught by surprise by a flood of feelings. The tears well up as the overstuffed bags of clean laundry line the front door. There’s a nagging pang that blankets my gut when one of my children takes flight. It’s no different from the first day of kindergarten, or the overnight middle school trip, or relinquishing the car keys, or being greeted on the steps of the freshman dorm and knocked over by the smell of pot wafting out the windows, or offering advice about bosses who border on abusive. I worry. Don’t get on that bus…don’t get into the car…don’t step foot in that office.
Each time, that deep achy pit tells me to grab them tight and not let them stream too close to the combat zone. But I don’t. I respect them too much for that. And of course, I’m the one who knows. I know what I’ve given them. I know where they’ve been. I know what they are capable of. But I don’t know where they’ll go. So domestic scenes are approached with a rounded softness, making sure not to let my guard down too far – for fear that they’ll suspect that I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Perched comfortably on my empty nest, I thought I had this figured out. The pain is unbearable at first. The empty place at the dinner table cannot possibly heal. Then it’s swell. Candlelight dinners at 9, adult conversations, clean bathrooms! Could all this freedom be real?
My friend’s daughter moved home after college. I can tell it’s not easy, but it’s necessary. She wonders if she’s “mom enough” for this new coming home phase of parenting. Raising kids is humbling, and my friend’s mothering roadmap has been severely thrown off course. A roots and wings navigational hiccup of sorts. I get it, just when she thought she got out unscathed, she’s caught again in a mothering disruption. I inform her this chapter is a wide phenomenon that requires a decidedly different set of boundaries. Confounded, she thought she was done with the heart pain of extreme parenting.
With parenting days on simmer, if we know what’s good for us, I tell my friend it’s time to take a seat in the bleachers and enjoy the dog days of mothering, to look at her daughter’s presence as a bonus prize, as she gets a front seat to watch those beautiful transitional wings take flight. I reassure her that if our mothering worked its magic, instructions are tattooed on our children’s wings. Of course, not the kind that anyone can see except for us. Will they crash-land a few times before they reach their dreams, carrying our hearts? Yes, most certainly.
So the mothering beat goes on. They come, they go. And as we’ve seen before in the annals of social lives of mother/child relationships, it’s hard to recognize change as we live through it. My change is coming of age, which is why I’ve unceremoniously dropped these three words from my mothering vocabulary:
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 36% of young adults ages 18-31 now live with their parents. Mine do not. And they remind me of that often. My children succeed and struggle elsewhere, on their terms. This takes the control issue out of my inept hands.
With a forced self-awareness, I’ve painstakingly dumped these like hot potatoes. Great expectations are not so great when they belong to someone else – you. Not them. These easily misinterpreted and misaligned dreams seem just plain wrong.
After years of swooping down and kissing boo-boos, it appears it would be perfectly natural to help mend a child’s broken heart. I’m learning to step away from the hyper-connectedness and wait for the texts and emails when life grabs my children and shakes their core. Sigh.
I’m also achingly holding on to three words that seem prime for plodding the map forward:
Remember “attachment parenting?” Well, it’s come full circle. They’ve evolved. Now it’s my time to wean. I must, or risk the wrath of a child (or spouse) calling me overbearing, a meddler, or the dreaded enabler. No, no, this is not someone I’m willing to become. Sometimes knowing when to detach is ridiculously hard.
It’s almost impossible for this “see something, say something” gal to zip it and retreat. I’m hardwired to step in and fix. For survival – theirs, mine and ours, distance helps. If I don’t comply? They head (sprint) for the door, or their childhood room. I head for the wine.
With unmistakable affection and joy, the posture of my heart opens wider because the compass always points in this direction. No matter what age, love conquers.
Ronnie Citron-Fink is a journalist and Editorial Director for the Moms Clean Air Force. She is the founder and author of the blog, Econesting. Yahoo named Ronnie one of the “Top 10 Living Green Experts.” She is a frequent contributor to Huffington Post and Medium. Ronnie is working on a new book, UNCOLOR: Do or Dye Essays.