A good friend of mine recently dropped her youngest child off at college several hundred miles away. Even after a couple of weeks, she can’t talk about it without crying. For a number of reasons, having her youngest go away has hit her particularly hard.
From the moment our children take their first tentative steps, they are moving away from us, developing independence, and becoming themselves. It’s just that when our one-year-olds take those steps, they are still so connected to us that we don’t know enough to feel sad. We are jubilant at their development, at least until we leave them at the kindergarten door for the very first time.
All gains also involve a loss. If we get a new job, we lose precious free time. We have more money but less time to spend it. When we marry, we gain a lifelong helpmate (at least we hope) but lose some autonomy. As we get older, we grow in wisdom and knowledge but lose some of our idealism and innocence.
Nowhere do I feel this dichotomy as strongly as in the arena of parenting. When my kids were little, I dreamed of solitude and rest. Just a nap seemed like a luxury I could ill afford. As my children grew, I applauded their achievement of new skills and their maturation. Sure, I worried about new friends and situations I thought might be scary or dangerous for them. But mostly, I knew they were doing what they were supposed to do – grow up.
The first time I felt a keen sense of loss was when my oldest daughter went away to college. She had gained entrance into her dream school, and I was bursting with pride in her accomplishment. I was happy for her chance to take the next step in her life. But I was unspeakably sad at losing her. Sure, she would come home for holidays and breaks. But she would be her own person now, truly on the path to independence for which we had been preparing her her whole life.
My dear friend will eventually adjust to her empty nest. She may even find some benefits to having her time entirely to herself. After all, if all gains involve some loss, it’s also true that good things can arise out of a loss. My parents are a perfect example of this. Out of the tragedy each experienced losing a beloved spouse, they found each other.
Meanwhile, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that our children are getting to experience what we did when we were their age: the exhilarating, frightening, fabulous journey to adulthood.