Children leave home. This separation is a universal rite of passage all parents and children have to go through if they want to develop a healthy adult relationship. As a parent we know the day is coming, but often put off feeling the angst of separation. I mean who really wants to think that after several decades of devotedly caring for and loving someone night and day - they just leave? Even if you are the child who has been looking forward to growing up and leaving home for years . . . when the day actually arrives, you still get a major lump in your throat.
I’ve been through this parent/child separation routine many times. So why doesn’t it get any easier? Sooner or later we all have to deal with the bewildering feelings of loss that accompany our children leaving home. Marriage, college, career or religious duties hover on the foreseeable horizon and we have to face reality . . . our days of living together are numbered.
One foolish way we parents attempt to soften the blow is by thinking about all the every-day irritations that this separation will eliminate . . . things like how nice it will be to have wet towels actually hanging on the rods in the bathroom instead of being tossed in a heap on the floor. We imagine a huge reduction in our grocery bill because the food our child usually eats will now hang around in the refrigerator for days. We contemplate quiet peaceful nights where we go to bed early because we’re not up late worrying that our child has been in a car accident or the victim of a hormone driven dating partner.
Our child, who is also thinking about this major life change, is likewise trying to make it easier on themselves by doing the same thing. They think about how great it will be to finally eat potato chips in the living room, let dishes stack up in the kitchen sink, sleep in on Sunday and come home when they darn well feel like it.
This psychological attempt to make the break easier seldom works. Yet, pretending not to care makes both parent and child a little testy during the days and weeks before the actual separation. Its like, “Yeah well if you’re not going to feel sad when you leave - then I won’t either.” That attitude is all a big smoke screen. Underneath all this pre-separation crankiness is something incredibly tender.
As the parent you tell yourself that you’re not sure your child can make it without you. Yet somewhere deep inside, you know they can and you don’t know how you feel about that. Your deepest fear is that you don’t know if you can make it without them. As a child you have lack of experience and naiveté on your side so you’re pretty confident you can make it without your parents. How difficult can adult life be? Your parents make it look pretty easy. Yet, there’s a secret part of you that still wants to take all your old stuffed animals with you when you go.
At times of separation, love and loss get tumbled around in our heads and hearts until both parents and children feel a bit dizzy and unsure. If we’ve shared a healthy loving relationship, parting is - as Shakespeare put it so well - such sweet sorrow. Each child is a piece of sunshine and when they leave it feels like someone turned out the light. It’s hard to say good-bye. It helps to know that though we have to let go of living together . . . we never have to let go of loving each other. Though our roles and stewardships rightfully change, our love remains constant. And where there’s love, the light is always on and children find their way back home.