My kids will soon be home for the holidays. They will bound through the door with piles of filthy clothes and a deep sense of gratitude to be sleeping in their own beds again. They will marvel at our overstuffed refrigerator and delight in being united with their beloved old Lab. I want to say it will be as though they never left, but that simply isn’t true. They will appreciate everything, including their father, me and each other, far more than they ever did when they had no place else they called home.
My family has lived in revolving door mode for 6 years now. My boys come and go and repeat this pattern again and again. I am the air traffic controller of my family. I seem to have little or no influence on who is where and when, but I spend a lot of time trying to make sure that there are smooth arrivals and departures and that everyone has enough to eat.
But I have learned two powerful lessons from their cycle of returns.
When my kids first left for college I missed them like a sharp intake of breath with a broken rib. Everywhere I looked I saw memories of them. Everything I did, whether it was grocery shopping or driving by their elementary school at the end of our street, I felt the acute pain of their absence. I could not imagine feeling otherwise. Their leaving felt so raw, an open wound that I had no idea how to heal. Like most parents I loved by sons beyond recognition and could not envision that I would adjust to having them gone.
But humans are more adaptive than we ever give ourselves credit for. Friends told me that the pride of seeing your kids move on to the next stage in their life salves the pain.
When my first son left I was overcome with missing him. When the second left I braced myself the way you do when you are pulling of another band-aid and the first wound is still raw. When my youngest left I grieved over the family life that was now past and the mom I used to be.
And then I got used to it.
I kept up with them in a stream of texting and a family Group Me. They sent photos and emails and called when they needed something. Sometimes that something was just to talk. While the daily details of their lives were no longer the details of mine, they whirled in and out of my life at such regular intervals that the searing pain of missing them died down to a dull ache, and sometimes, it disappeared entirely.
I knew this was as it should be and yet, there are moments, a wistful seconds, when it seems utterly sad to no longer be sad. It feels as though you have let go of a life force, let slip away the family life you treasured above all else. Nobody tells you that as happy as you might be with the way your life moves forward, a small part of you will miss missing them so much.
So my kids will be home soon. They will return home as more wonderful versions of themselves. They no longer need to push me away or prove that they are grown and our time together lacks the constant tension of their teenage years. I no longer try to shape them into something they never were (truly, what was I thinking) and that removes about 99% of the tension between us. After decades of trying to show me they could do things on their own, from drinking out of a big boy cup without a lid, to living on their own, they no longer have anything left to prove.
They will be energized to be with each other and will bring their chaos back home. They will kick soccer balls in the living room, leave a mess in the kitchen at 2 am and bring my car back without any gas. For one brief second I will consider yelling at them, old habits die hard, and then I won’t.
But the secret no one mentions, the one other moms don’t even whisper because…really what is the point in telling you ahead of time. It will be worse when they go.
The adjustment I have made to having them gone turns out to be temporary. In a matter of hours I will be lulled back into our “old normal”, the one where we all share a single roof.
The five interlocking parts of our personalities will fit right back into place as we tease each other, argue with each other and love each other. As we sit around the dinner table, I will feel that sense of everything being right with the universe. And for a moment I will fool myself into believing that this is how it should be.
And then, just as suddenly, they will be gone. And anyone who has heard that sound before knows that the post-holiday silence is the most deafening. A week earlier the quiet was fine, now it will be excruciating. All around me there will be reminders, a dirty plate, the couch cushions strewn on the floor, a charger left dangling from the wall. In that moment and for the hours and sometimes days that follow, I will miss them like it is the beginning again. I won’t cry the tears of a freshman drop-off mom, but I won’t be the well-adjusted mother I was only the week before and will once again be days hence.
So many parents told me I would get used to my kids being gone. Many others told me the pain of missing my sons would be a constant, just a fact of parent life. For me, both pieces of proffered wisdom turned out to be truer than I could have ever known.