When school resumed this year, I was surrounded by parents whose children were either entering kindergarten or beginning their college career. What fascinated me was how similar these experiences were for these parents. Whether it was a 5-year old climbing on a bus or an 18-year-old moving into a college dormitory, the parents of these children were experiencing pangs of worry and grief. And it was not just the letting go of their child that they had in common, but also the impact this change was having on their role as a parent.
A young mother shared with me what she experienced when taking her youngest daughter to kindergarten: she was surprised at how sad she felt, that somehow starting school was synonymous with her child growing up. And though her daughter has been growing and changing over the past five years, this hurdle of starting school had stirred up a sense of loss. Her daughter’s previous developmental gains had taken place before her eyes and she’d had a role in her child’s success. As her daughter entered school she was forced to come to terms with the fact that her daughter was beginning the process of not only growing up but “growing” outside her home.
Similarly, a dear friend was dealing with her youngest son beginning his college career. Different from the young mother, my friend was not surprised by the immense sadness she was experiencing. But her feelings of loss were very similar. She had successfully carved out her role in her child’s life and supported him as he made advancements socially and in his education. But as she moved her son into his dorm room, she was forced to come to terms with the fact that her son was grown.
What has really struck me about the mothers in my life that are dealing with these changes is how they are at a loss. Not only are they experiencing sadness as their children move on, they are also lost in what to do or not to do. For example, my sister whose oldest son began college this year confided that she struggled with not being in control. She was used to getting her son out the door to school, packing his lunch and monitoring his comings and goings. And it is killing her that she does not know for sure where her son is and what he is doing. She joked about how she had to convince herself not to call him in the mornings to make sure he was getting up for class!
Each of these mothers are renegotiating their role as a parent. As children’s needs change, parents need to adjust the ways in which they support their children, and that can be stressful. The feeling of loss comes from letting go of how it used to be and the fear comes from not knowing what their current parenting role looks like.
My best advice is to take comfort in the fact that no matter where a child is – at school, at home or in a college dorm room – no one can replace a mother. So grieve as long as you need to, cry and let go of the past. And when you’re ready, join your child in their journey of “growing up.”