As a new mother, I quickly learned that parenting consists of a series of stages, each with specific goals to accomplish. You get used to little to no sleep, frequent feedings, and diaper changing. Check. You learn how to comfort a toddler on the verge of a breakdown. Check. You help a third-grader practice spelling words. Check. You drive one child to soccer practice and another to piano lessons while composing a grocery list in your mind. Check and check.
You survive homework battles, repeated ACT/SAT attempts, promposals, college admissions and all it entails. Check, check, check, check.
And finally, high school graduation. Check.
But as most experienced parents know, parenting doesn’t really end after high school graduation. Young adults heading out into the world for the first time often still need their parents to remind them of such important items as changing the sheets, getting a flu shot and checking their oil level and tire pressure before starting on road trips.
However, at some point, at some date that seems impossibly distant as you look into the eyes of your firstborn, your children won’t need you to help them manage their daily lives any more. All those years you’ve spent carrying around important numbers in your head, (their shoe sizes, the dates of their next dentist appointment) will end.
They will be adults. And you might feel a little stunned when this happens.
Our two older children have already crossed that wavering line into adulthood. They have been managing things like rent and utility bills on their own for a few years. They have college degrees, jobs, and most importantly, their own health insurance policies.
But our youngest has always been the one to keep us in the parenting game. When my son got married, his youngest sister was only 14. I knew I still had plenty of daily parenting ahead of me.
And then, just a few short weeks ago, our youngest daughter, now a junior in college, became stranded with her boyfriend half a continent away. They had a broken-down car and no way to get home to their college classes at the end of spring break.
When she called to let us know, I went into full-on, mom-in-charge mode, shooting questions at her while mentally making lists. Arrange for flights. Make sure she contacts her professors about missed classes.
And then she said, “Mom, I’ve got this.”
I stopped. She was 21. She didn’t need to me solve this problem for her. She just wanted to let us know what was happening. My job was to listen, to not offer advice unless she asked for it.
They handled their spring break travel crisis like pros. The car was towed to AAA. It couldn’t be fixed, at least not for some time, so they figured out how to buy plane tickets and fly home without me telling them how to do it. One of my daughter’s bags was lost by the airline. She made arrangements for it to be dropped off at her apartment. They both contacted their professors about the classes they missed. She scheduled a time to make up a missed mid-term.
In short, they navigated the travel mishap like the adults they are. My role was reduced to simply being empathetic.
And that’s when I realized I didn’t need to handle my children’s daily crises anymore.
This revelation hit me unexpectedly hard, leaving me a little bereft, like the feeling I had when my oldest first went to kindergarten and then 14 years later, moved out of our home.
I tried to take a figurative step back. After all, this was the goal my husband and I had been aiming for ever since seeing that first pink line on the plastic stick 20-some years ago. We wanted to raise our children to be strong, independent people who could manage and enjoy life on their own terms. And then it happened, and I found myself feeling a little lost. Once more, I realized, the role I play in my children’s lives has changed.
I had just passed another stage, maybe the final one in my daily parenting journey: all three children become responsible adults, capable of handling adult-sized problems on their own.
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Lori Stratton is the mother of three young adults and a high school English teacher. Find more of her work at lorijstratton.com.