How to Say Goodbye

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When it comes to being a parent there are times when I feel utterly powerless. And as my “children” become “emerging adults” (not even “young adults” anymore) my feeling of redundancy is even more intense.

Now, right up front, I want to say this has nothing to do with them.  They are going about the business of growing up and becoming themselves just fine.  The issue is with me.

Parenthood brings with it a vulnerability that can’t be compared.  I thought, when I was up night after night, that if my child made it to sleeping through I would regain the sense of being on top of things that at one time I believed I had. And, in some ways I eventually did.  Control was how I managed. I had schedules and routines. I found out that having an empty fridge on Monday had repercussions for the entire week and learned not to be lazy on Sunday. I became disciplined about getting that child (and the others that followed) to bed on time.  Mornings, though still hectic, were no longer chaotic. I was in charge. I orchestrated their lives and that became the source of new and profound meaning in my life.

Nothing prepared me for that day, years later, when my son at seventeen took the family wagon out for his first solo ride. Suddenly, I was facing that my children had agency. Even within the confines of dependence they had choices and could make decisions. Now I was awake waiting for tardy teenagers.  I prayed they were safe from drunken drivers. Before the advent of cell phones, I hoped they were not broken down on the side of the road. Scanning the darkened ceiling, I became painfully aware that their own bad decision making might be the worst concern of all. Mercifully though, late as is might be, eventually they came home, to sleep under my roof.  But, increasingly, I was facing the vulnerability I had created in giving them life and the tenuous control that was slipping away.

Now that has all changed.

My children no longer live with or near me. They own their own cars. My oldest flys a lot and is kind enough to let me know when he touches down but mostly they come and go without my consent or knowledge.  Now, the issues my offspring struggle with are much more profound and life altering: who to share a life with, where to live, to have a family or not, to move on from one career to another, etc. Frequently, their decisions seem right and successful.  Other times the outcomes seem to cause suffering and reflection. Occasionally, I am consulted. Sometimes requests are made. But all of it is their own journey not mine.

This separation is all good.  I mean, I actually do want them to be independent!  A friend said to me yesterday, “our job really is to get them on their own feet so they can live without us when we die”.  A little grim maybe but existentially true I think.

So now I’m learning to say good-bye.  How to say goodbye to people who at earlier times I wished would move out to the tree house for a few days and give me a break.  People who literally came out of me and clung there, demanding, for so many years. People for whom my love is so big it has actually become another organ in my body.

I cannot say that I will ever achieve a care-free condition.  This, in spite of the fact that my grown kids are superb human beings.  Responsible. Caring. Hardworking. Fun.

When people ask me if I’m looking forward to having grandchildren one day I chuckle.  “Of course,”, I say. “That way I can have more people to worry about, love and let go of.”

I realize I’m not alone.  As of this moment, I have yet to meet a mother who is completely delighted that she is no longer on the top of her adult children’s emergency call list.

This way of loving, from afar, without being needed is perhaps the most challenging of all.  It requires, faith, restraint, practice and self-compassion to wave good-bye. It’s a bit messy.  I can’t always feign casualness when waiting for a return text. Sometimes I have a snuffley cry in the privacy of the shower.  I miss them. What can I say.

Mason Gehring