As teenagers head off to University or higher education this week, many parents may be feeling a mixture of emotions: pride, excitement, maybe even relief, but also underneath it all a sense of loss, and something that feels just a little bit like heartbreak.
You’re never ever ready. And it always feels too soon.
Your child is leaving home and there you are, wondering why it feels like someone just ripped out your heart and ran all over it with a juggernaut.
You knew it was coming. You just spent your child’s entire early life preparing them for eventual independence – primary school, then secondary or senior school, then the all-important exams, then applications for Uni or college or work. All the evenings going over their homework. All the football matches and dance classes. All the battles and hugs.
But when it finally happens and the time comes for them to go, you’re left wondering why it feels so much like a hammer blow to the heart. You’ll think thoughts like “they don’t need me anymore” and you may even laugh at yourself through the tears, for being so silly. You’ll cry remembering them as a tiny little thing whose hand gripped yours so tightly. Or you’ll cry in secret because it somehow feels wrong – after all, you knew what you were in for – you love your children but they will always leave.
It sounds so odd to say you feel heartbroken when your child flies the nest, that word being so associated with romantic relationships. But when it comes to describing the pain you feel, then heartbreak is exactly what it is. It’s a feeling of grief and loss that you somehow feel embarrassed about admitting. You may burst into tears for no reason. You may brood for a bit when you see their old football boots or even the disgusting state of the room they left behind (so, that’s where all the bowls and glasses went).
As you help them get organised for Uni or college, as you help them pack and sort out student accommodation, as you hear them chat with their friends, there may be a growing sense of being left behind. Although you will always be Mum or Dad, you know that you will no longer be at the centre of their new life and this bright new future they are heading off in to. The reality stares you in the face: you are now an adjunct.
Maybe they’ll talk about you to their friends, they’ll message or text (but don’t be surprised if they don’t), but they’ll be dealing with the daily issues and problems of life on their own. The world they inhabited with you, where you were at the epicentre of the whirlwind vortex of their lives, the hub of their life’s spinning wheel – this world no longer exists.
A chapter has ended. Well and truly, You can’t go back, even if you wanted to.
The boundaries of parenting have been reached. You have raised them. And here and now the job of raising them ends.
So you think back about maybe how you could have done things differently. How you should have spent more time teaching them how to cook. Or how to do their own laundry. Or how to manage their money. And by beating yourself up about all the things you should have done but didn’t, you’ll start to make comparisons with your own life.
As they set off on the path to independence, you’ll be reminded of when you did the very same thing to your own parents. You left home without so much as a backwards glance, glad perhaps to get away from Mum and Dad, thinking Mum was a bit embarrassing for getting so upset, and never really appreciating how deep that wound went.
We didn’t realise the hole we left behind. And neither do our children. They don’t know you’re heartbroken and you can never tell them.
Jokes are often made about “Empty Nest Syndrome” as if it’s not a real thing but some indulgence made up by over-protective mothers (bit of a clue: It’s not just a Mum thing. Dads feel it too). Maybe you joked about it too until it happened.
But here you are, entering a new phase of being a parent. Your role in your child’s life has shifted and you may be wondering how to be a Mum or Dad to a newly independent person. Where do you fit?
As with all emotions, the only way through it is to feel it. To really wholeheartedly accept that you are feeling the way you are: heartbroken, sad, upset. Your feelings are not silly. They do not have to be explained away. You don’t have to justify feeling sad.
Your role has changed and that means letting go of the old way of interacting with your son or daughter and embracing a new way, whatever shape or form that takes. It means taking your cues from them about how much or how little they want your involvement in their lives; practising acceptance is key.
As is getting on with your own life.
Someone once said, grief is about having so much love still to give to someone who is no longer there. After your child leaves, you will still have so much time and energy and love to give to them but they’ll be off living their own life, no longer in close proximity to receive it. So what do you do with all that time and energy and love?
You raised your child well and they are now standing on their own two feet (sort of). You did a good job. And now, how about turning the focus on you? On what you love doing, On where the gaps in your life are that need filling and enriching.
Your role has changed but the fundamentals of your love haven’t. You may not be at the epicentre of your child’s brand new life, but you’ll be their roots, and their foundation, the place they know they’ve come from and where they’ll come home to when they need to most.
Photo: Tim Gouw/Unsplash