A recent essay on Grown and Flown poignantly described how parenting late teen or early twenty-something children can feel like endless goodbyes – to college, or studies abroad or new jobs in far flung cities. And while saying goodbye to our children over and over again doesn’t ever become easier, it does become familiar — another ritual to put in our parenting bag of tricks. But the goodbye cycle isn’t just about us saying goodbye to our kids. It’s watching them go through a period that is rife with goodbyes of their own.
Life at this stage of the game for our kids is about finding their groove, forming their tribe and claiming the precious territory of belonging somewhere. We send them off to college worried that they will be lonely, that they won’t have friends. We watch their tentative first steps away from us with the same held breaths of a young parent watching a toddler navigate that first trip across the living room floor.
When they’re toddlers we clear the room of obstacles, we pad sharp corners, we pick them up when they land on well-padded bottoms and, with a kiss, set them on their path again, cheering when they reach the safe harbor of welcoming arms of a parent, grandparent or friend on the other side of the room. But at 18, 19, 20 and beyond we send them off knowing that we can’t move the obstacles for them anymore, that the falls will hurt, and with the hope that there will be arms to welcome them on the other side of their journey.
Then, at the end of the year we load our cars back up with dorm essentials that are less shiny than they were in August. The comforter looks well used, the desk lamp has some dings on it, you can’t remember how to put that mattress pad back in the box, and the careful assortment of toiletries and school supplies are jumbled in a box with the accumulated memorabilia of campus life. Our passengers are teary, not with the thought of leaving us, but with the thought of leaving their tribe for the summer, leaving their place of belonging and going back to a hometown that seems smaller and less appealing than it did before.
For my daughter, we had barely recovered from the end of freshman year when she returned to campus a scant three weeks later to work as an orientation counselor for incoming freshman. This meant we went through the cycle all over again. Moved her back to campus, bid nervous goodbyes, and finally picked up a tearful young woman bereft at the end of a month of hard work, late nights, in-jokes, shared secrets, and bonding with her team of fellow orientation leaders. With several of her new friends leaving to spend a semester or a year abroad the goodbye was especially painful, as was the knowledge that she could never re-create this moment in time with this exact group of people again.
And that’s what this stage of life is about for them. For with every year of college, every summer internship or academic intensive, every new adventure, they have the joy of coming together with new people, finding common ground, forging bonds and feeling complete – a part of something bigger than themselves. And with every graduation, every wistful end of summer parting, every trip home they go through the wrenching goodbye cycle all over again.
I knew that saying goodbye to my daughter several times a year would be painful, but I didn’t expect it to be more painful to watch her struggle with her own goodbyes. I was reminded of that day, now 32 years in the rearview mirror when I cried the entire three-hour drive home from my first gig as a summer stock actor. Certain that I would never find friendships as strong as those I had forged in the costume shops, rehearsal rooms, and late-night set strikes of the craziness of a summer stock season.
I don’t tell her that I can’t remember the names of those people any more, but I do remember how they made me feel. I don’t tell her that the pain fades and the friendships that matter will endure. I don’t tell her that she will go through this more times in her life than she can count – with each new move, new stage of her life. I don’t tell her that my wish for her is that she always be as open to these bonds as she is at 19.
For so many of us in our 40s, 50s and beyond stay safe on our own little ponds, hesitant to reach out, to welcome new people in, to become attached in the way we did in our youth. I don’t tell her that it will be ok. I don’t tell her to get over it. I let her be sad. I listen again to stories of young men and women I don’t know but who are her entire world. I let her cry. I let her be quiet. And in rare moments, I hold this vibrant young woman the same way I held that toddler that fell down in the living room. And I kiss her head and I set her on her feet and I get ready to send her off again, but this time comforted by the knowledge that wherever she goes she will find welcoming arms to greet her.