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Letting Go: How To Survive Your Child Leaving The Nest In 10 Easy(??) Steps

August 27, 2019

“Oh darlin’, don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up, just stay this little. Oh darlin’, don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up, it could stay this simple.” ~Taylor Swift

As much as this sentiment rings true, we know that the ultimate goal of parenting is for our children to grow up and leave the nest. But, as with every stage of parenting, the sweet comes with a side of bitter. Each new phase brings excitement and joy, but also mourning of what’s left behind. Parenting is all about forward motion; we can never go back to the age our child was before, we can only treasure the one he’s in now and anticipate what’s to come.

Which is all well and good until you actually have to let go. So I’ve prepared a handy checklist to help parents who are going through this transition. I have the full experience of almost an entire week, as well as a jumbled mix of emotions I’ve barely begun to process, both of which make me highly qualified for absolutely nothing. You’re welcome in advance. Here goes…

Step 1. Cut a hole in a box. Oh, wait…that’s for something else. (And now you’re singing it.) Spend unhealthy amounts of time poring over old photos and reminiscing about how quickly the past eighteen years have gone. Tear up every time you hear a song that makes you think of your child. Hug him more often than he’d like, for longer than is entirely comfortable. Attempt to imagine what life will be like when he no longer wakes up under your roof, when you no longer know the ins and outs of his days. Seek reassurance from your husband, who will attempt to downplay the significance of your child moving out by reminding you that he will still be living in the same town and will likely be home “all the time.” Try to make a list of perks you’ll experience with your child out of the house. Come up with exactly two: you won’t feel like you have to wear a bra at home and you have one less person to consider when you’re planning dinner. Acknowledge that you’re seriously reaching. Throw away list.

Step 2. Take your child to Target. Buy all the things. ALL the things, people.

Step 3. Offer to help your child pack. Remind him repeatedly to pack. Take deep breaths when it’s t-minus two days to the big move and he hasn’t begun to pack. Hope that he remembers to pack everything he needs. (Side note: Act surprised on move-in day when he inevitably leaves something important behind. Choke on your “I told you so.”)

Step 4. Moving day. Comfort your younger child when she has to say goodbye to her brother and head to school. Offer her the same words of comfort your husband shared with you, knowing full well you’re both full of shit. Pack your child’s vehicle like you’re on the final level of Tetris. Drive to his new dorm, act like you know what you’re doing in the loading zone. Frantically look for someone who actually knows what she’s doing. Unload your child’s important belongings. Note the ratio of basketball shoes to school supplies but refrain from commenting. Realize you’ve forgotten tools and attempt to put together flimsy shelving with your bare hands. Give up and send your husband back to the house for his tools. Watch your child as he arranges and unpacks, his excitement so contagious it overpowers your grief and worries. Remember how exhilarating it was to have that first taste of independence. Surprise yourself by feeling more joy than sorrow. Realize it’s time for you to leave him in his new home. Say goodbye for now, relishing the long hug he initiates.

Step 5. Spend the first few days post-move pretending your child is on vacation. Enjoy the fact that he has to come home to get the things he’s forgotten. Empathize with your dogs as you now understand how excited they feel when you come home. Think to yourself that this isn’t so bad, at least he’s close by and you’ll probably be seeing him all the time.

Step 6. Go a full day and night without communicating with him. Realize that this is your new normal. Watch your husband offer to help your child set up something in his dorm, only to be told thanks but no thanks, that your child and his friends can do it. See the disappointment on your husband’s face as he realizes what you already have: your child doesn’t need you, at least not in the same way he always has. Text your child covertly and suggest he call or text his dad to say hi and thank him again for offering to help out. Play dumb when your husband looks up from his phone a few minutes later and asks, “Did you tell him to text me?”

Step 7. Wake up feeling off. Notice how cloudy it is, how quiet your house is. Realize this heavy weight that’s pressing down on you just might have something to do with your child moving out. Feel surprised because you thought you were stronger than this, that you weren’t someone whose entire life revolved around your child and who would be lost when he was no longer around all the time. Sit with the knowledge that you feel unmoored and empty in a way you never expected to. Wallow a little. Or a lot. Repeat as needed.

Step 8. Your child’s first official day of college. You worry that he’s forgotten to take his ADHD medicine. You worry that he’s forgotten to bring the right materials to class. You worry about the weather and the distance he has to walk between classes. You forget for a moment that he’s a very capable, intelligent, independent adult. Sit on your hands so you don’t text him and offer to pick him up in the rain. Time your errands so you’re close to campus when he might need you. Remember that he’s not in kindergarten, he’s in college. Run your errands and avoid campus. Bake him cookies and hope he’ll come by the house to get them; smile when you realize it worked.

Step 9. Wake up to sunshine. Feel something shifting, some acceptance creeping in. Force yourself to go to the gym. Leave feeling stronger, physically and emotionally. Drive with the windows down and the sunroof open. Meet a dear friend for coffee. Buy some plants. Sing along with a few cheesy 80’s tunes. Feed yourself a delicious, nourishing lunch. Write. Begin to feel like this is something you can survive.

Step 10. To be determined. I don’t know what to expect, but I do know this: letting go is harder than it looks. But a mama’s love is made of tough stuff. I got this. And if not? I’ll just bake more cookies.

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