Letting your child leave home
Brandie Weikle realizes she needs to follow her own advice.
I’ve been training for this for 18 years and yet I’m nowhere near ready.
It started with those early milestones — putting our newborn on a blanket for tummy time so he could learn to lift the weight of his own head. Then helping him learn to walk, to put his toys back in the bin (at least some of the time), to tie his shoes, make a sandwich.
For years I’ve written about the importance of raising adults. Of equipping our kids with the skills they need to do without us when they leave the nest, even if it makes us unpopular with them at times along the way. (“I’m the only kid I know who has to do their own laundry!”)
But now I’ve got to follow through on my own advice with the ultimate test of how well I’ve managed to foster that independence. It’s time to back the heck off while my son adjusts to his first year away at university.
And, wow, is it tough. Though I was surprisingly tear-free during our goodbyes on the front steps of his residence — the sun shining, wideeyed first years everywhere with their whole lives ahead of them — the separation hit me with full force a few days later. With the busy work of getting him there complete, I was confronted with the startling loss of control and assurance of his well-being that I had when I could clap eyes on him each day.
Sure, our older teens had a lot more freedom to come and go from our homes, and it wasn’t always easy to get to the bottom of things that might be going on with them. But seeing them even over hurried breakfasts and arriving and departing with their friends gave us the confidence that they were alive, well and, more than likely, wanting to know if there was anything good in the fridge.
But now those assurances only come sporadically when they feel like returning one of our texts.
When we got back I forced myself not to message Cameron the first day, hoping to communicate my confidence in him to make his own way. Around 36 hours in, he sent a message to the family group chat that — apart from being woken at 4 a.m. that morning when someone pulled the fire alarm — he was having a great time.
The first “mom friend” I ever made is my dear friend, Kelly. We met in prenatal yoga classes. Her child was due just days ahead of mine, and my first outing into the world with Cameron in tow was to a local Starbucks to meet Kelly and her newborn, Ella. Now they’re living one floor apart at their new university.
The notes Kelly and I first compared about birth plans and breastfeeding have been replaced hundreds of times over as our kids entered new stages and struggles. Naturally, the final weeks of summer featured dozens of texts about residence packing lists and almost as many messages of disbelief.
“How is this happening?” “Where did the time go?”
Now we’re commiserating over how to strike that balance between checking in too little or, more likely, too much. “Did you hear from Cameron? How is Ella doing? Did you see this story about an out-of-control house party?” There’s a definite nail-biting energy to these exchanges.
Chatting in recent days with other people who are also adjusting to their kids’ first week away from home reveals a range of coping skills. One friend had just remade his daughter’s class timetable in a format that was easier to read. Plenty are texting their kids many times daily.
One mom was following her child’s every move around campus using Friend Finder on her iPhone.
We could roll our eyes at that last one. But all of these are understandable once it’s your child who has left the home. There’s a hole in the household where they were so recently taking up their usual amount of space with their strengths and their weaknesses, their idiosyncrasies and their appetites.
I’m no longer tripping over Cameron’s size-11 sneakers left squarely in the middle of the front hall, but neither am I laughing at his wry take on politics at the dinner table. It’s quieter around here.
My mind casts about for ways to fill that Cameron-shaped absence. In the neighbourhood my eyes want to find him among the high schoolers getting student-special shawarmas. My hands reach for his favourite snacks at the grocery store. My younger son indulges my extra-long hugs.
On campus, our kids are doing the important work of getting over the first hurdles they come across. They’ve sorted out which of their classes are in person and which are remote for now. They’ve configured their routers, purchased text books and found their lecture halls.
Maybe they’ve been ecstatic about their new environment at times. Anxious in their bellies at others. Overtired and frustrated the first time they encounter a problem that feels too tough to solve at that moment.
Back at home, my own lowlevel anxiety from this new distance between us erupted around Day 5, when I’d also sent my younger child off for his first day at a high school where he hardly knows anyone. At the end of that busy day, the worry burden erupted and I was sobbing with the loss, the passing of time, my astonishment at finding myself at the end of my firstborn’s childhood.
It occurs that there’s a kind of grieving process that needs to unfold, and that — as with any big shift we make in our lives — we need to both make space for it, and lean on others as we get through.
Reflecting on my own first year away at university, my mom warns me about the perils of tying my happiness to the tenor of my rare updates from Cameron. She says she’d lose a night of sleep if I was upset during a call, only to discover that I’d forgotten anything was wrong when she’d check in the next day. She reminds that kids vent their tough moments to us because it’s safe to do so, then they get on with their days. We should do so, too, allowing them space to solve some of their own problems.
Of course it’s important to keep tabs on our children’s mental health and overall wellness. We’ll stay in touch and intervene if needed. But perhaps we can think of what’s happening now as a kind of gearing down. We’re still parenting, but we’ve eased off the gas.
Meanwhile, deep breaths, friends. The kids are going to be all right.