I’ve never really understood the whole bird metaphor when it comes to kids leaving the house, but it’s all over the place this time of year. Especially on social media, we can’t seem to escape all the lovely, soft focus pictures of perfect little empty bird’s nests, overlaid with sweet sayings in curly font. The exact words vary, but the general gist is, “Don’t be sad when your children leave the nest! It’s because you did your job as a parent that they are ready to fly. You did it! Yay you!”
And if that works for you, if that makes you go, “Oh yes, I feel sooo much better! Now when my kid leaves, I won’t curl up into the fetal position and sob till my eyes swell shut or a vocal cord snaps, because I will be too filled with joy and pride to feel anything else! Yay me!” …then I’m happy for you.
If, however, those sayings just aren’t doing it for you, if they make you question your sanity and general ability to cope, or cause you to look around for something to hit, I want you to hear me right now:
It’s ok. It is.
It’s ok if you’re struggling, because sending your kid off to college – this almost-adult that you have devoted 18 years of your life to keeping alive – is HARD for a lot of us. Last year at this time, I was where you are. Staring at the growing pile of bedding, crates and various dorm room items in my living room, I kept thinking to myself, “I’m not strong enough for this.” And as I feebly tried to sort through all the emotions duking it out in my body, I realized that it’s possible to be proud and heartbroken at the same time. Proud because I had managed to help raise a great human being, who was ready to go off and make his mark on the world. Heartbroken because I had managed to help raise a great human being, who was going to…leave me.
To be clear, this was entirely about me. I never once worried about my son. He really was ready, and I knew it. It’s just that in growing into this amazing, launch-worthy young man, he had also grown into someone I really, really liked having around. And I was going to miss him. A lot.
If you’re a mom or dad who’s tracking with me right now, you also know the next thing you hear – either from your internal critic (please tell me I’m not the only one who has one), or from an external person trying to be helpful: “Don’t be so selfish! This isn’t about you!” Or, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t be so ungrateful! You should be thankful that your kid can even go to college.” These statements do make a good point about the need for gratitude. But gratitude and grief are not mutually exclusive. You can be thankful and still grieve.
And it really is a kind of grieving. Even though you haven’t lost them, you’ve lost the way things were. When change comes like a seismic shift, when the comfort of the familiar is ripped off like a bandage, grief is a natural reaction. Even when the transition is ultimately a good thing, we still grieve change.
Pride and sadness, gratitude and grief. All coexisting in one, crazy person. No wonder some of us struggle.
Now, I do feel the need to add that I know parents who handled this transition with nary a tear. Yes, some were actually glad to see their kiddos go, but most simply accepted it as a natural progression of things and gracefully adjusted. So it’s possible. If you are the parent of a younger child, and reading this is making you think that sending your child off to college will trigger an automatic crisis, just know you could be one of the lucky ones. But just in case…
We have several birdhouses in our yard, and late last July I noticed a pair of wrens building a nest in the birdhouse right outside the window by my desk. I watched the flurry of activity as they prepared, and observed in delight when, after some weeks of silence, the parents’ arrivals to the birdhouse were met with urgent, tiny peeps. As I perused dorm room checklists from my son’s university, I heard each arrival to the birdhouse. As I returned from yet another college supplies shopping trip, I saw wobbly little heads with disproportionately large, open mouths pop eagerly out of the birdhouse opening. When we finally packed up the car with everything our son would need at college, I could tell the babies were close to fledging. And the panicked thought flashed across my already emotionally compromised brain: if they flew while we were moving our son in and I had to come home to not one but two empty nests, things were going to be ugly. Like scary ugly. Thankfully, God loves my husband and daughter, and we returned to find the little wrens still in the house. They fledged a few days later, and as I studied the empty birdhouse, I had to wonder: what happens to the mom when they leave? So much of this bird mom’s recent life has been focused on growing these eggs into babies, and the babies into wrens that can survive in the wild. Their success in the world outside the birdhouse is a testament to her work, but…what happens to her when they leave? Does she busily turn her attention to other work, or does she just enjoy some well deserved rest as she reaches a wing around to pat herself on the back? Or, does she sit silently and simply miss her kids? It just struck me that with so many clichés and cute metaphors about children “leaving the nest,” very little is said about the time after.
So I’m going to say something. Two things, actually. One to all of us who aren’t sending kids off to college this month, and one to the parents who are.
To the rest of us: this is the time of year now when we are surrounded by parents who are going though the process of letting go. I have to admit, I never saw them until I was one myself. And I thought, how have I missed them all this time? They’ve been moving around me, hurting silently, and I’ve never seen them. I vowed then that I would see them from now on, and I would try to love them a little. Or a lot. Now, not every parent wants someone in their face, asking them huge, emotionally flammable questions like, “So, when does your daughter move in to her dorm?” But a little kindness can go a long way with someone who is either anticipating move in day or recovering from it. See them. And try to love them.
To the parents who are about to do this Very Big Thing: it’s ok to be sad. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have that right. Yes, you’ve raised a great kid, and yes it is time for them to launch. You can be proud of that and still grieve their physical absence in your life. It’s not selfish to miss them. And I can honestly say, as someone who took it pretty hard, that it does get better. You learn a new normal, and in this new normal you move forward. You’re going to be ok, I promise. In the meantime, however, be gentle with yourself.
I’m working on a Part 2 to this post, talking about the good and bad (mostly good) from the first year. Spoiler alert: it gets better, and everyone survives. And if you want the full portrait of a crazy lady, you can flip back in this blog and read the post I wrote last year, after we sent our son off to school. It only took me a month or so to stop sucking my thumb and start writing again. So there’s that…
Hang in there, friends.