Love: letting go, fear and freedom

Many of us know the Khalil Gibran quote “If you love somebody, let them go ….”. We don’t usually think of applying it to letting go of our children as they begin to mature. It is perfectly natural for us to experience some fears and worries when the time comes for them to leave home. At the same time, we want them to become healthy, happy, independent adults. These conflicting emotions are unsettling.

Roots and Wings

According to folk wisdom the two lasting gifts parents give their children are roots and wings. This is just one of the metaphors parents use to describe what happens when their children leave home. Another one is that of a bow and arrow.  The child-rearing part is when parents draw the bow in preparation for launching those arrows one day. The purpose of the parenting is to guide them correctly so the launch is successful.

And then, of course, there are the kids who are like boomerangs. They may leave but they end up living back at home again.

Erma Bombeck says that children are like kits –

“You spend a lifetime trying to get them off the ground. You run with them until you’re both breathless. They crash. They hit the rooftop. You patch and comfort, adjust and teach. You watch them lifted by the wind and assure them that someday they’ll fly.

Finally, they are airborne. They need more string and you keep letting it out. But with each twist of the ball of  twine, there is a sadness that goes with joy. The kite becomes more distant, and you know it won’t be long before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that binds you two together and will soar as it is meant to soar, free and alone. Only then do you know that you did your job.”

I love this for the most part but I don’t like the idea that the lifeline is snapped. I personally don’t think that the bond ever breaks completely – it just changes in nature.  It is no longer an umbilical cord where your child receives food and sustenance from you. It becomes more of a bond of friendship and mutual respect.  The rocket metaphor also leaves me with the impression that my kids are going to go off on their own trajectory, never to make their way back again.  Of course,  boomerang kids are the opposite end of the scale. Adult children living at home with their parents is becoming more and more common in today’s tough economic climate and it certainly has its own set of challenges.

Shifting relationships

When our children are born, we are no longer a couple but a family. We do not simply become a couple once again once they have all left – it is far more complex than that. A shift occurs and the whole family has to start functioning differently.  Boundaries have to be renegotiated. For some parents, having more time for one another improves their relationship but for others it spells the end of the marriage. Now that women no longer have such a hands-on parenting role, they have time to pursue goals they may have put to one side while raising children.

The healthier our bonds are with our children as they grow towards complete independence, the less we need to fear that they will simply cut us out of their lives. Studies have shown that children grow most successfully towards independence in the context of strong bonds with their parents.

There is definitely a symbolic weight to children leaving home – for some parents, it’s the ultimate test of their parenting skills. Will that child be able to survive and thrive on its own? We have been emotionally invested in our children for so many years that it’s not easy to find the delicate balance required in relating to them as independent adults.

Conflicting Emotions

As parents we often experience a sense of profound loss when our children leave home.  We still have the urge to protect and guide them but we know that we have to start allowing them to make their own decisions, even if they are the wrong ones. As parents it is difficult to stop worrying about our children, however completely and well they may have independently embarked on their own lives.  We may worry that we are no longer always there to catch them when they fall. We worry that they are not emotionally mature enough to cope with what life throws at them. We also worry about concrete events and situations they may encounter.

As Linda says “I think it’s really hard when they leave, particularly if it has been a very rewarding experience, and it has been central in your life. I think it’s hard, but it’s good because it’s the first step of the rest of their lives. So you walk that delicate line.”

A delicate line

Some of us are happiest if our children live as close to us as possible while others want their children to live a bit further afield so they can be more independent. Few of us want our children to be so far away from us that we hardly ever see them. We want them to live close enough so that they can return home for family events or in event of an emergency.

On the other hand, we also feel an increased sense of freedom. We have time to focus on ourselves for a change. Sometimes, it can be difficult to make that transition from constantly thinking about others to focusing on ourselves. We may even feel a sense of guilt because we are so unused to the idea. However, once we are finally at peace with the idea, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

I have left my daughter’s bedroom untouched since she left home. She still comes home over weekends at this stage so it is for practical reasons rather than sentimental ones. Eventually it will probably be transformed into a craft room or a study. I am lucky that I can get used to her leaving in stages. Other children leave abruptly for distant shores and I am glad I am not standing in the shoes of those parents they leave behind. Perhaps my daughter or son will move much further away in the future but at least I am becoming accustomed their absence step by step.  My daughter’s room still has a powerful significance for me while she is doing this delicate dance – flitting between college, her boyfriend’s home and my home. Eventually she will alight somewhere and I will accept it, knowing that we are one forever, no matter where she chooses to live.


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