Letting My Children Go Has Been a Whole New Kind of Pain

Letting your oldest child go, leave home, heading off on his or her journey to study, earn, or live is a painful moment. As a father, I don’t know what childbirth is like, first-hand, but I submit that, in some ways, sending them off and out into the world is almost as painful. After all, in childbirth, a woman releases her child whom she cared for and nurtured in utero for nine months out into the world.

When that same child reaches early adulthood, somewhere between sixteen and twenty-something, and the ersatz adult decides it’s time to fly the nest, that too is a parent releasing the child, who has been cared for somewhere around two decades (which equates to approximately 25 pregnancies worth of time), out into the world. Again, it’s a birth of another magnitude, a full-blown earthquake compared to the rumblings that preceded it, but it is painful in a wholly new way and level. 

It’s hard to let them go. (Courtesy of the author)

I can’t understand how it’s possible for parents not to feel loss after their teens leave home

Now, I had experienced some parents — fathers, mostly — who blustered about how, when their child left home, they had new paint on the kid’s bedroom wall before the car was fully packed. By the time they left the driveway, they boast, the room was well on the way to becoming a full-blown “man cave.”

I call BS on such machismo because I have difficulty comprehending how a parent can not feel a sense of loss — mixed with pride, hope, and other equally valid feelings —when a child heads out alone.

I experienced these birth pains for the first time when our oldest stepped forth from the nest, flying east in 2015 to a significant university 800 miles from home. I was unprepared for the emotional weight and heart-wrenching emotions I felt the preceding months in her senior year of high school.

Several dads, like those mentioned above, “consoled” me in various degrees of teasing, belittling, and even gaslighting me until I felt like a total fool.

After emotionally crashing and burning and subsequently getting professional help at the insistence of my loving wife, I finally got myself squared away. Then, and only then, could I appreciate the wisdom of my brother-in-law, Josh, one of the wisest men I know, who said something to the effect, “She is doing what you have reared her to be: smart, strong, and independent. You have done your job. Now, enjoy watching your work continue to grow.” 

We have let our children go and watched them become independent

That is precisely what we have done since then. She graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering, got a very good job with a good company that cares for its employees, has moved up a few steps, and met a faithful and dedicated man (who is also a helpless and hopeless romantic, like her father, as well as a hard worker) and plans to marry soon.

Our middle child also is on her trajectory. She graduated high school the same year her sister graduated from the university. She is now a junior at a local university, studying business communication. She still lives at home, but that has enabled her to pay cash for her education without loans for room and board.

While the trajectory hasn’t been as flat or straight as her sister’s, she has overcome many personal obstacles that her sister didn’t have to face. Again, like her sister, she continues growing into a bright, strong, and independent woman. We rejoice in the strong women they both continue to be.

Our youngest is now graduating from high school

Now, our youngest is graduating from high school. He turned 18 last December, making all three of our children legal adults. In February, he enlisted in the United States Navy after determining that college wasn’t for him — at least, not right now.

A third child on yet another third trajectory toward adulthood. And he, too, is growing into a more intelligent, stronger, and more independent young man. We will surrender our responsibility as parents and teachers to his drill instructors and the teachers at his training schools.

They will continue the process of molding and shaping him. He will — I hope — grow even smarter and stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally. His independence will be different than his sisters, with a great deal of emphasis placed on inter-dependence, relying on shipmates to work together. 

Our son ships out with the Navy in a month

He ships out in four weeks and one day for boot camp. In just twenty-nine days, we’ll hug, kiss, shake his hand as a boy and send him through the doors towards manhood. He’ll go into the MEPS center to be transported to the Great Lakes Navy Recruiting Training Command where, over ten weeks, the Navy will shape, fold, spin, and bend him to their purposes, turning a kid into a sailor complete with Navy regulation bell bottoms (yes, they still use bell bottoms) and the Popeye hat. 

That’s what the Navy will do. 

That day, my wife and I will drive home with the experience of having just birthed our son out into the world. In many ways, it will be more painful than the first birth. He’s our baby — as much as a 6’2”, 205 lb man can be a “baby.” He will no longer be under our roof, care, our watchful eyes.

In other ways, it will be easier. He’s learning, growing, adulting. But it will hurt, regardless. I’m sure we will cry as we remember his shenanigans and laugh about his goofiness. Personally, as the one who has had to stick dynamite under his pillow or hook him to a tow truck to pull him out of bed, I will laugh every morning as oh-dark-thirty rolls around. I imagine him having to get up the first time, without complaining (at least, not so the DI can hear it), go to the bathroom, and shower in under two minutes — and all this (GASP!) without a cell phone.  

For twenty-nine more days, I still have my son

But, then, I will probably catch myself wanting to holler at him to play catch, ask what sounds good for dinner, help me with the yard, ask him how his day was, or have him tell me a story. And, at that moment, realizing he is far from home, I know there will be a catch in my throat and likely a tear in my eye. 

The Navy may make him a man, but he will always be my son. 

So, for twenty-nine more days, I still have my boy. For twenty-nine more days, I will try to prepare him for what is ahead as best as possible. For twenty-nine more days, I’ll feed him, play catch with him, fuss at him, hug him, and soak up as much time as possible. 

For twenty-eight days, I’ll let him sleep in. 

But on the twenty-ninth, I’m getting him up early so I can have just a few more minutes before he goes. 

More Great Reading:

My Son Left For College; I Didn’t Expect To Feel This Way

About Jonathan Meyer

Jonathan Meyer is a Lutheran pastor, husband and father of three now-adults. A recovering English major, Jonathan enjoys reading and writing all sorts of things: personal essays, commentary, poetry and humor. Sometimes he's even funny.

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