Next to bittersweet in the dictionary – it should just say this: “Your child is moving on.”
When your child leaves home, the flood of emotions is overwhelming and complex. The intense mix of joy and grief is confusing and you have to feel your way through it. Let whatever you’re feeling be there. It’s laughing and crying, sorrow and celebration and the fact that it comes at the end of the whole application process (college or job) which in itself is a roller coaster ride means emotions are already running high.
Your child’s leaving brings on this intense mix of sadness and joy – one minute smiling thinking about the adventures ahead of him and the next so sad that we won’t be part of those adventures. Of course this is what we’ve always wanted. People say that missing them is a testament to our connection– but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
My younger son’s Pre-K teacher had the class do a project – she had all the children decorate a paper grocery bag, and she put their projects from the year in it. She also added photos from throughout the year. Then she asked for handwritten letters for the children from family members to be put inside. We all put our notes inside, the whole thing was stapled and we were instructed to open them the day they graduated from high school.
I put it in the top of a closet for safekeeping for a time that seemed so far off it was hard to even imagine. But for those who have already celebrated a high school graduation you know it sneaks up on you – even when you’re trying to hold on and cherish every moment – especially their senior year.
So on graduation day we pulled down that package and went through it. It was fun to look back at all those photos and drawings but the letters, oh the letters. The one from our sons’ nanny (which really doesn’t encapsulate who she was to them). She was like another grandmother – one who was with us five days a week for eight wonderful years and some weekends when we just wanted to do fun things with her. She was with us through everyday life and big events right up until the day she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She passed away just months later. She wrote that letter less than a year before she died, and I thought of it often over the years.
Reading that one was tough – she clearly loved our boys and wanted the world for them. Still she made us smile with her wit and love. Then there was the one from my Dad in his instantly recognizable handwriting – what a treasure. He passed away 5 years ago and was close to my sons so his message in his words meant everything. So we hold on to memories while we make room for new ones.
I remember saying to my sons –
“I want you to go off to college. I really do. So when the time comes for you leave, and I beg you stay, I don’t mean it so don’t listen to me. You may have to shake me off as I grab on to your ankle and hold tight. But go because I really do want you to go.”
It never actually came to that but it was tougher than I expected. When we dropped off our older son at college, a plane ride away, I was doing fine but was worried about “the big goodbye” – the moment when he would walk away and we would turn to leave and go back home. The time snuck up on me. After moving him in and having lunch with him and his new roommate I thought we’d walk around campus with him for a bit.
But, when we got back to the campus he said “Okay, we’re going back to the room for a while and then heading out to meet people.” Wait, what?! I’m not ready. I need more time. This can’t be IT. But it was and in fact, it was better this way. It was time for him to go, and he was ready so we had to be ready (but did he have to be SO excited?!). So there it was – time to leave – and instead of “the big goodbye” it was a few photos and lots of hugs then he and his roommate turned and walked away. His Dad and I just stood there holding each other for a few minutes then our son turned and flashed us a smile – I melted – he was ready, he was leaving and it was as it should be.
When we dropped off our younger son it was pretty much the same – me trying to stretch it out and him ready to meet new people and start a new chapter. He was so tolerant at breakfast that last morning as I sat there hugging him with tears quietly running down my face. Then when the time came to depart, he gave us both hugs, we took a few more photos and he walked off into the crowd to join in the orientation festivities.
For some reason with both of them it was really important to me that they have the perfect bed –the perfect mattress topper, soft sheets, lots of pillows. I think just knowing I would be going home to empty beds, I wanted to be sure they ones they were in were comfortable. And it seemed like the one thing I could do to bring comfort, peace and tranquility to an environment that was sure to be crazy, loud and hectic. But other than that, they really just wanted to set up their rooms and start living their new lives.
When our boys were young, my husband used to say, “You get what you give” – this is absolutely the only parenting advice anyone ever needs and what you get in return is far greater sometimes than what you give. We gave them the best foundation we could, we gave them unconditional love, we gave them advice and of course, money, lots of money (sometimes you start to feel like an ATM when they’re in high school!).
I just didn’t know what to do with all that need to “give” when they left home. Now it shows up in care packages, texts, a little extra money in their bank accounts, phone calls and visits. Letting them have their space but staying close as we love them from afar and it’s bittersweet for sure – but now that it’s been 6 months since they both left, it seems much more sweet than bitter.
Wimpy Mom’s Guide to Letting Go of College Bound Children
Boy Moms: What You Need to Know Before College Drop Off