Nothing is as monumental for a mother as the day her child leaves home for college. It’s far more provocative than taking a sprouting five-year-old off to kindergarten for a day. Women begin to form dread over losing their child near the middle of their child’s high school career, as they chat with moms on the bleachers who have seniors. Imagine that you will begin to cry at your child’s high school graduation, and continue weeping while moving him or her into a residence hall on some college campus way too far from home to suit you.
Anxiously you will mark the days until a “Parents Weekend”, often held in autumn, for parents to visit the campus and get an up-close evaluation of how well their young adult is adjusting to being away from home for the first time. It’s complex and gut wrenching.
Most moms devote their entire beings to their children, and struggle when it is time to release them into the wild. Speaking from experience, it can take years to come up with any tiny reason to be happy about one’s precious child being gone, and months to stop sobbing every time you pass their empty bedroom on the way to the bathroom. Of course you miss them, and the entire family unit is upended and out of sync for a long while. It is a transformational shift. Some mothers sink into a deep depression that swells into a significant problem for the rest of the family unit. Nevertheless, every mother will have to release her children to adulthood someday, and easing up on the grip of parental control is a process.
It’s as difficult a challenge as any other stage of parenting, and the preparation for how to parent an adult child is trickier than the mother of a toddler might imagine. I am reminded of the famous quote of poet Khalil Gibran, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
For some women, there is a sliver of a silver lining to this common transition, rooted in practicality. With a guilty amount of glee, you may be looking forward to appropriating the absent child’s bedroom for other family uses. Maybe you’ve had to crowd two kids into a smallish bedroom and each can finally have their own room. It could be that a much needed guest room or dedicated home office is legitimately possible now. More decadent re-purposing might be in the back of a mother’s mind; something like a huge walk-in closet or a yoga den. Certainly there are jokes about waving your child’s packed car good-bye, and then racing back into the house to begin to dismantle their bedroom! It’s funny enough, but experts warn that it is important to keep your kid’s room exactly the same for a few years.
Emotionally, your child should feel that they can come home at any time and that there is a place for them. In fact, parents with college-age children need to accept the fact that more and more young adults do return to their childhood homes for a variety of reasons.
Statistics from the Pew Research Center indicate that since 2014, some 54 million Americans were living in some form of shared familial housing and that number appears to be holding. That’s something like 17% of our population, and for the first time on record living with a parent is the most common young adult living arrangement. There are also more single people of all ages in our population today than ever before, so the chances are titanic that one of your kids is going to find their way back home sooner rather than later. Obvious challenge exists over getting a good enough job to pay down student debt and maintain an apartment; a huge slice of Millennials are forced back home.
No one is elated about this arrangement if truth be told, because something happens in the years away at school. Your children begin to carve out their independence. They learn how to manage a checking account and credit cards, take care of a car and do their own laundry. But often for the first time in their lives they also begin to form a unique identity separate from the family unit. It’s a normal permutation that comes with growing maturity. You can expect that the child who comes home is not the same child who left as a college newbie.
Ultimately there is a genuine blend of grief and pride when your kids begin to leave home. It’s a milestone, but in no way does it mean that you are now free from parental duties. Financially and emotionally, as the mother of a twenty-year-old college student or a twenty-seven-year-old graduate you are still bound to your children; you are just following a different recipe. If you can, you are still interested in providing support to your young adult child. Instead of daily duty, you will be summoned to give an opinion on fewer occasions of significance. You’ll get random calls asking how to bake a potato or how to clean a stain from a carpet (both of which happened to me). You will undoubtedly be asked to help with car insurance, health insurance and major car repairs. A child might even ask your advice regarding relationships or employment opportunities.
This delicate balance hinges on the fact that your children still need you as much as before they left, but in new ways. The tango danced after your child graduates high school is danced to different music, and continues for the rest of their lives. When you are holding a sweet-smelling infant, nothing is as hard to imagine as what they will be like as a young adult. Yet nothing is as rewarding as looking at your child stand tall and whole, out in the world, and on their own.