As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in Showboat (1927), “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.” And kids gotta leave. Somewhere around a child’s 18th or 19th birthday, there is a monumental shift in family life. The kid who has been making us proud (or not), who has been surprising us, delighting us, disappointing us, making us sad, mad, and glad — in short, been part of the rhythm, harmonies, and general noise of family life, isn’t going to be there anymore. It’s a startling experience, particularly with the first child. Where did 18 or so years go?
Parents and Kids Have Different Feelings about Leaving Home
For most parents, the feelings are very mixed. There is joy and pride in the miracle of having raised this wonderful young adult. There are regrets for the plans and good intentions we never realized: the trip we didn’t get around to taking, the interest we didn’t manage to cultivate, the days we wished we had done better. There is worry about whether we have adequately prepared our child for what is to come. There may be anger about how difficult it has sometimes been as well as satisfaction about all we managed to accomplish in spite of the difficulties. There is even some relief. (A friend of mine maintains that the ninth month of pregnancy and the senior year of high school have something in common: As much as a mother may be nervous about the next step, it’s gotten so uncomfortable that you just want the kid out!)
Most 18-year-olds aren’t nearly as conflicted and emotional about all this as their parents. For the child, this is a time of looking forward to new freedoms, new adventures, and new possibilities — all beyond the watchful gaze of parents. Yes, they’ll miss us. Yes, they will still occasionally ask for advice, information, help, and money. But mostly they are focused on proving to themselves and to us that they can manage on their own, thank you very much!
Adjusting to Family Change Takes Time
As for us, the parents in the situation, we find ourselves facing a major gap in our family as we have known it for nearly two decades. Being “old,” we don’t adapt as easily as the kids. Being mature, we try to anyway. But there is no getting around the fact that when a child leaves, there are surprising and sometimes overwhelming feelings of loss. More than one parent has told me that she or he cried the entire four-hour drive home after dropping a child off at college.
All of these feelings are normal and even expected. For a child, growing up has been a process of looping back and forth between pushes for new independence and pulls back to gather know-how and reassurance for the next step forward. For a parent, raising a child has been a process of looping back and forth between encouraging independence and pulling back to reassure and support through love and advice. It’s an elaborate and practiced dance. Although our children certainly continue to need mentoring as they (and we) continue to get older, it will be on very different terms.
Coping Strategies for Parents
Are there ways to make the transition go more smoothly? Certainly talking about it helps. In general, it’s a mistake to expect to talk about it much with your young adult child. Most kids this age get very impatient with us. Reach out instead to your spouse, your best friend, and your relatives, especially to the people who have shared in watching your child grow. People with children the same age are an especially helpful resource. There’s nothing so reassuring as finding out that others have many of the same feelings of excitement about what is ahead and nostalgia for what has been.