How Do I Process My First Child Leaving Home?

The night I learned I was pregnant for the first time, I didn’t sleep at all. My husband sat there with a shocked look on his face, holding the pregnancy test. We talked for a while, and then we went to bed. Only I never fell asleep.

While he snored by my side, I lay there repeating the phrase I’m a mom over and over in my head. It just looped around; the very idea and all it entailed.

Yesterday, our son moved out. I didn’t sleep at all last night. It didn’t make sense. I was exhausted. My body craved sleep. It wasn’t that I was thinking of David moving so far away. In fact, I wasn’t thinking of anything of much consequence. I wonder if it was simply a matter of my body remembering the night I became a mom and now, this night I am moving into a new phase of motherhood.

I wanted to throw out his ratty sneakers, maybe I won’t. (Photo credit: Amy Nicholson)

Moving out for good is a completely different moving out

At the beginning of motherhood I was filled with fears for the future. Yesterday for me, watching him leave, was about memories. It was his turn to focus on the future, to be excited and maybe a little nervous about being mostly on his own.

I’m sure he wasn’t thinking of Little League baseball games but of his new job and new life in a new state. He was feeling the kind of excitement I felt when we dropped him off at college. Even though he was going to be four hours away for four years I remember being almost giddy, thinking, This is the coolest thing! 

This time, the moving out business is very different. 

All the ordinary things suddenly feel special

Suddenly all the ordinary things seem special. The ratty Nikes he wore to his job as a short order cook at the pizza place in town. We begged him to toss them, but since he forgot to do that before he left, I’m having second thoughts. Maybe I’ll leave them in the mudroom for a while longer.

How he’s the only one in the house who doesn’t like coconut, prompting the rest of us to quote the line from It’s a Wonderful Life: “Don’t like coconut? Don’t you know where coconut comes from?” 

How we have to watch that movie on Christmas Eve every year, and, despite the fact the main character likes coconut, David claims it’s just about the perfect movie.

Even though the rest of us are still here, and he never made much noise, the house is now eerily quiet. Just knowing he’s not in his room changes everything. We won’t be hearing the sound of him running his hands along the wall as he descends the stairs to dinner or him practicing guitar (folk or metal, depending on his mood), or pretending to argue with his siblings. The empty space is full of all the sounds that we’ll miss now that he’s gone. 

I wonder if I have done enough to prepare him

The guilty mom complex takes this prime opportunity to rear its ugly head, questioning, Have I done enough to prepare this person to be on his own? But then I watch as he fills the car with bags I did not have to help him pack. The car he bought himself this past summer.

I remember he’s an excellent driver. Putting on his glasses and seat belt, adjusting the mirrors, turning on the headlights. I remember teaching him to drive six years ago. Teaching him who and how to ask for help. Flat tire? AAA. Basic recipes? Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Basic survival skills in the wide world? Years of Boy Scouts and mini-lessons at home as needed. Washing clothes and dishes, cleaning out and bandaging cuts, and many, many conversations about love in all its forms. 

As beginner parents, we had to be intuitive. Trying to figure out what this infant, who could not say a word, needed. And yet, when he cried we figured it out. Food, diaper, comfort. Surely, when he calls from his new home and asks for what he needs from us, we’ll be able to help him. I take a deep breath.

Guilty mom slinks back into her cave, and I stand up a little straighter. I’ve done all right. 

Moving out and on are a process

The moving out and the moving on are processes. After being married for thirty years and a parent for most of them, I know that. I don’t take the adages lightly: This too shall pass. There’s a season for everything. They are on repeat in my brain on days like these.

I guess the wisdom comes when we allow ourselves to process change in any healthy way we end up doing it. After he left yesterday, I laid the mat down on the living room floor and turned on a yoga HIIT workout on Prime. Maybe a physical workout would eclipse the emotional one.

It felt good to focus on the instructor’s directions, keep my body moving. Later, my husband asked me to go for a walk. He said he had to get out of the house. So we hiked three miles through winter woods, the sounds of squawking mallards and cracking ice the soundtrack behind all that was deeply felt but left unsaid.

Back home, I didn’t feel great. My muscles ached, my stomach upset. And I couldn’t warm up. The temperature had been in the teens, and I had worn double-layered knit mittens, but my hands were still cold. I skipped dinner and went straight for the shower and an early bedtime. Surely, all the exercise had done me in. I longed for sleep. But it never came. 

My husband and I got some extra time to process our loss

Thankfully, today’s winter storm prompted the superintendent of schools to call a snow day. My teacher husband and I had the day off. A gift. A chance to process, to rest. As this was an unscheduled day off for both of us, we had no plans. We decided to leave it that way, to give ourselves grace to do whatever it was that would be restorative before heading back to work tomorrow.

This change in our family dynamic hit us harder than we had anticipated. It’s times like these that I’m especially grateful for my husband. We can find solace in each other. Through this, we’re not rushing off to our own business so quickly. We linger a little longer, finding gentleness in the mutual loss. 

My husband and I process change differently

My husband processes change differently than I do. He grabs the Sawzall and cuts the sheetrock in the upstairs stairwell. Says he’s finally going to build that bookcase he’s been talking about. I shouldn’t have been surprised he started this today. I’m reminded that when each of our three children was born, he completed a new construction project at the house. Apparently, this is how he deals with a change in the family dynamic. (Remind me to look forward to yet more home improvement when the next child leaves home!)

As for me, I do a light yoga practice. Mostly stretching to release some of the bound up tissue from yesterday. I grab my notebook and start writing, stopping to cry when I need to, to look out the window at the falling snow, to remember his smile and the hair falling over his eyes. Allowing the rest of my body to catch up to my heart. 

More Great Reading:

When Your “Grown and Flown” Moves Out of Town

About Amy Nicholson

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