Parenting advice

A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.” ~Sloan Wilson

Note: This essay was published earlier this year (“A New Season of Parenting”) in Metro Parent magazine. It was written especially for friends whose children will be starting college this fall…

It’s going to be a roller coaster year for a friend whose youngest child will graduate from high school in May, then head out of state to college in August. My friend is already working through some conflicting emotions. She gets a little teary at the thought of one less place setting at the family dinner table, yet she’s thrilled about the prospect of a keeping neater house (and gaining a spare bedroom) in the fall.

My son’s last year in high school was a bittersweet time for me, too. Like Janus, the ancient Roman god of gateways, beginnings, and endings, I found myself looking forward and backward as my son closed the door on high school and prepared for his new life at college.

When I wasn’t caught up in the May-June whirlwind of award banquets and graduation ceremonies, I spent a lot of time wondering where his childhood had flown. When no one else was looking, I’d search for it in a family album crammed with precious photos of birthday parties, Fourth of July bike parades, Cub Scout camps, Christmas mornings, and Halloween nights.

Around that time, it also hit me that one of the sweetest gifts of midlife is the maternal amnesia that blurs the other memories of infancy and childhood — the post-partum blues; the exploding diapers; the marathon temper tantrums. Not to mention those snarky adolescent insults. When our kids prepare to leave home for college, after all, we tend to focus on the Hallmark moments.

All of this reminiscing seems a bit maudlin to me now. But revisiting the highlights of my son’s childhood helped soothe my empty-nest blues. Pausing to savor and reflect on my early years of motherhood made it easier for me to move on. It also made me grateful for the privilege of raising a child — and grateful for the chance to spend time with so many terrific young people.

During the high school years, for example, our home was a favorite gathering place for my son’s friends, so I always stocked up on extra snacks and soft drinks. Looking in our refrigerator in those days, you wouldn’t have guessed that we were a small family of three. When I unloaded my grocery cart in the checkout line, clerks would often ask if I was feeding a very large family or hosting a party. I always answered yes to both questions.

And since my “extended family” left for college when my son did, my feelings of loss encompassed more than one child.

Taking flight, moving on

Grieving isn’t unusual in the early weeks of empty nesting. Raising children gives us a sense of mooring and purpose. That sense of mooring suddenly disappears when they move out, and getting used to a quieter household can be a huge adjustment. As essayist Marion Winik wrote, “Once you’re a mother you can never think something else is the most important thing.” Still, few parents I know are comfortable with the term “empty nest.” An empty nest sounds pathetic and forlornĀ  — adjectives that hardly fit the millions of accomplished women and men who are reinventing their lives after child-rearing.

“A word signifying a void or a vacuum is an unfair way to describe a time when life can be full of growth possibilities,” note Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt in The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press). But even more important than finding a new catchphrase for the empty nest is shifting our focus to the fresh opportunities awaiting our kids on the other side of the threshold.

Our job, after all, is to help them learn how to leave us; to let go.

It’s also our job to get on with our own lives. Just as we hope our kids will thrive without our constant supervision, they need to believe we’ll be just fine, too. In the long run, helicopter parenting doesn’t do anyone any good.

So, even if your kids aren’t leaving home this year, it’s not too early to sign up for those ballet lessons you’ve postponed for ages. Or to rediscover the sport or the craft that kept you juiced up and inspired before your name was Mom. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. A new season of parenting will unfold. — Cindy La Ferle

— Nest photo by Cindy La Ferle —