A few years ago, I left my heart at a college in Texas, halfway across the country, because that was the best plan for my child.
It was the hardest thing I have ever done in the realm of parenting. I couldn’t wrap my head around the feeling of leaving him behind and the changing paradigm of my family with a new hole left from his absence.
I knew he would be incredibly successful at college. I didn’t know whether I’d be incredibly successful at home without him.
Our family dynamic was changing.
The air in our home felt thick and melancholy. The dinner table felt stark with his empty seat. His room felt lonely. I often closed his bedroom door so I didn’t have to be reminded that he wasn’t sleeping at home anymore. Even the dog sighed when he walked by his empty room.
I should have been ecstatic that my child was attending the college of his dreams. We did it! We moved mountains and he gained acceptance to his dream school.
Yet, I could barely drag myself out of bed.
I missed the energy and chatter of his posse. The silence was absolutely deafening. I felt lost.
All those parenting books I read when my kids were younger don’t address this grief that happens when you let your child go–even when you know what you are doing is the best for them.
There isn’t even a word for the emotions I felt.
When your child leaves your home to start a new chapter, it’s okay to feel joy and grief, pride and heartbreak, happiness and sorrow.
I’m so proud of his achievements, including his bravery in moving far away to begin a bright future. I was full of gratitude for his opportunities.
And I also felt guilty and selfish for feeling sad about my family changing. I wasn’t an empty nester. He was still in my life.
I didn’t have a right or rationale reason to be this sad.
Yet, I was.
You will want to change their plans, but you won’t.
For a moment, all I wanted was to keep my child nearby and my family intact.
I thought about suggesting he attend the local state school, the one we had already decided was not a good fit, just to keep things the same.
But I quickly remembered, it was not about me. My heartache didn’t matter at that point.
He was in the driver’s seat and he needed to decide what he wanted to do with his life. I was a supporting character and needed to accept the demotion.
I think it’s harder to let kids go today because of what we have to do to prepare them for this new world.
Modern parents are expected to be fully involved in their children’s academic, extracurricular, and social lives in a manner unlike any other generation.
We’re encouraged to volunteer in the classroom, for sports, or lead activities. We’re expected to bake, sew and host.
We are always chauffeuring.
We’re expected to dig deep into our pockets to financially support whatever activity or endeavor our child is participating in at the time. If you have more than one child, you are expected to double or triple your efforts.
Most of us happily donate every free second of our time to whatever our children are involved with. Oftentimes, we pack up and travel for a weekend to a tournament or competition, or event.
Such parental involvement tightly bonds us to our children and it is hard to unravel.
The truth is, right or wrong, many of us lose our identity, or at least part of it, to parenthood.
We spend eighteen years preparing our child for the real world, or in my case, college.
We endured the unspeakably intense pressure of 11th and 12th grade when our kids take standardized tests and applied for colleges, writing seemingly endless essays and seeking scholarships.
Then, the anxiety creeps in when the college decisions arrive slowly. That means enduring the roller coaster of rejections and acceptances and waitlists.
There are tears – yours and your child’s — and unimaginable panic that there is no place for your shining star to thrive.
Finally, FINALLY, there’s a breakthrough and great things start to happen. Together you figure out what will be best for them. Life is good.
Then, you realize that this is really happening. Your child is going to college, just as you’d always dreamed.
Buts somehow their bright beginning feels like your enormous loss.
Letting your teenager fly is the hardest part of parenting for me.
I mean, It’s all hard.
But welcoming a newborn into the family is exhausting but usually happy. You are filled with the purpose of caring for your infant.
Saying goodbye to that same newborn, who is now six foot two, feels sad.
When you look at your new college student, you still see the newborn tightly swaddled, the sticky toddler, the third-grader playing saxophone, the sixth-grader with acne, the tenth grader volunteering at the soup kitchen, and the young man standing in front of you. You understand all of his facial expressions, quirks, and inside jokes.
That’s why it’s so hard to let your child go. Although not a single skin cell is the same as the day you brought your child home after giving birth, you can still clearly see that baby you know from your insides out.
Abruptly, after only eighteen years together, you have to turn your child over to the world to finish the job of raising him.
You may panic at how fast things change. Your child will have new inside jokes with new friends, which don’t include you. You pray that you’ve given your child the wisdom and skills necessary to navigate the exhilarating, unknown road ahead. You worry that you somehow forgot to teach him an essential tool.
But you didn’t. You’ve prepared them well. Take comfort that your loving guidance will carry them — and you — through this transition.
Beautiful milestones are sometimes also a loss.
Slowly, you’ll settle into your new normal.
It’s okay to take time to grieve.
It’s okay to cry. It’s okay that you keep crying.
Your family structure has changed and you need to find new ways to spend your time.
Find something else to put your energy into during your downtime. Concentrate on your career or rejoin the workforce. Volunteer or join a club.
Texting/facetiming is a lifesaver that makes your child feel closer than he really is.
Plan lots of visits, but don’t encourage your child to come home every weekend. College freshmen need to adjust to their new life and enjoy all it has to offer. If they treat it like a commuter school, they will miss the benefits of making new friends and joining new activities.
The piece of my heart that I left in Texas walked into an incredibly bright future and quadrupled in size.
It’s easier now, but I still miss him.
You’ll always be your child’s mama.
No amount of distance will ever change that.
This is a contributed post from Jillian Kaplan. Jillian is a published author, attorney, freelance writer, and college application coach. She’s been a college professor and a small business owner. She’s an autoimmune warrior and a mother of three. She shares stories from all facets of her life on the minivan journey. Follow Jillian on IG and Facebook at @lessonsfromtheminivan, on twitter at @fromminivan, or at Lessons from the Minivan.
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