Our children shed their childhood in layers, so quickly, so subtly, that we hardly notice it’s happening. We turn away, and try not to look at these hard, cold facts of reality, busying ourselves with the daily routines of life: laundry, cooking and errands. But if we look deeply, we can see that we are clearly in denial: “How can she be growing up when I still have all of these socks of hers to match? She’s not going anywhere…” These are the lies we busy ourselves with to avoid the inevitable.
This is how we cope; it’s too much to bear; this growing up and sending them away. We stay busy and distracted. Besides, in the midst of lacrosse practice, piano lessons and orthodontic appointments, it’s hard to imagine a time when all of this will come to an end.
But each fall, we are forced to come front and center with the very facts we work hard all year to deny: Our baby is another year older. It says it right here on the classroom door — kindergarten, first grade… then third grade… then “University Hall.”
When did the world start spinning so quickly? Your fail-safe option for denial, sock matching, has been taken right out from under your nose; she took all the socks with her when she left.
Snippets of the empty nest syndrome come to mothers of elementary school children too. Routines that centered around story times, favorite stay-at-home hot lunches of alphabet soup are altered, shifted and abandoned. When the dryer dings, there is no little voice singing, “Mommy, the clothes are all dry now.”
Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson, tells us something surprising. “One of the greatest fears of college students is they won’t have a room at home to return to.” Even if they don’t choose to return, they want to know they can.
This means you have important work to do; you need to keep those home fires burning. No, this doesn’t mean you can’t sell the house; or turn her room into your new “project” room, (you might want to hold off on that one for awhile). We’re not talking about walls here; we’re talking about the real home — the home inside of your heart — the part that makes you you. In her book, Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, Katrina Kenison says, “The journey, not surprisingly, isn’t about getting from someplace lacking to someplace better. It’s about learning how to travel well, how to negotiate the inevitable bumps in the road more skillfully.”
We need to look at this time of transition as a journey. Do your grieving; this is the necessary part of growing. You’ll be richer for this. Remember when you brought that scrawling infant home from the hospital? How much you grieved your freedom? You trained your ears, effortlessly, to listen for those safe sounds of her breathing and crying; you cleared out space for her ever-increasing array of onesies, and later dresses and shoes; and you made space for her high chair at your dinner table. You can’t even imagine what life used to be like before she came. Now it’s time to do that opening in reverse.
But this is not a time of closing, parting and cutting. This is a time for expanding, growing and loving. There is no need to close off; this is a time to expand, to move into those vacant spaces left by your child, and start to thrive. Your parenting window has not yet closed: there’s still some valuable lessons you still have time to teach her.
As you explore new hobbies, re-kindle old friendships, and relax in your new-found free-time, do these things with the right perspective; do them for the intrinsic motivation they bring you. Because only by growing will you have the foundation you’ll need to teach her what is means to let go, and become independent. She needs someone to look back at to know that you are not only coping with her absence, but thriving.
Right now, the best thing you can do for your child is to be the best living example of a person who fills her life with joy.
Show her how to grieve, and grieve with her, because, yes, she gets homesick too. Then, show her what it means to move to the other side of grief to security. Show her this is what home is; and it’s not going anywhere.