When our kids stop being kids

This week, both of my 20-something sons are moving in with their girlfriends. I like both of these young women, and I’ve been supportive. Yet, I’ve found myself feeling wistful, sad, out of sorts. And then I feel ashamed. My boys are doing well, moving on, meeting age-appropriate milestones in their increasingly independent lives. Isn’t this what I should be hoping for? What is wrong with me?

When I became a mom, I fell in love with each baby. Really, it’s that simple. I loved them with the intensity of any new love — I could watch them for hours, thought about them night and day, was fascinated by their quirks and talents alike. Of course, with time (read: teen-age years) the love evolved and shifted, becoming more bruised and seasoned, deeper and less starry-eyed. There may have been moments (months?) when I didn’t like them, but my love was non-negotiable, and loving them was a huge part of my life, my identity, my joy.

And then they left me.

They are leaving me for the life that we prepared them for. Off to college, graduate school, girlfriends, their own lives. And, I can’t figure out what to do with my grief. I can’t reason with it because grief is unreasonable. My head knows that it’s time for them to go; actually, I even want them to go most of the time. When they have returned home in the last few years, it hasn’t gone that well, honestly. We have all gotten used to living our own lives. They don’t want accountability. I don’t want to worry at 2 a.m. if someone is still out. They find me and my questions about their lives annoying; I find their annoyance annoying.

I want them to keep moving forward. Even so, I am grieving.

And I feel alone. It is a grief largely hushed in our culture. I know other women (and I’m sure many men) understand, but it’s somehow embarrassing to admit the depth of the pain. Like I have failed somehow to understand the terms of motherhood. Maybe the terms of this parenting contract should have been clear to me, but I don’t even remember signing it.

The contract, as I now understand it, goes like this: I will love my children deeply, perhaps more purely than anyone else in my life. They will be with me a short 20 years, and they will take whatever they need from me, and I will give it with a weird kind of purpose, joy, love, frustration and exhaustion all mixed together. Then, they will go and make their own lives and families, and I should find fulfillment elsewhere. At this point in the contract, if both parties agree, we can re-negotiate our terms.

I guess I am in the re-negotiation period. Maybe I should hire a lawyer — but I think I need a therapist more. Because it’s not that I want to argue for any other terms, really. I just want to know how to more gracefully let go. How to look at the pictures of them at 2 and 4, with their open-hearted smiles, matching shirts and chubby fingers without sighing. How to stop wanting to fix it when they can’t figure out how to register a car in a new town. How to not look at swim meets or school concerts or parents gathering on a soccer field without feeling this strange mix of relief and grief.

The younger of the two boys was just home for a visit. My birthday fell while he was home, and we went out to dinner to celebrate. I looked at this grown man across the table from me and felt the grief descending again. At home, I keep a treasured photo framed of the two of us, taken on my birthday some 18 years ago. In the photo, he is nuzzled up to me, looking at me with the adoration that can only come from a 4-year old boy to his mama. I have my eyes closed and a peaceful smile on my face, enjoying his sweet embrace. He will hug me again on this birthday, after dinner, and I’ll smile again. And the moment, while still sweet, is also, of course, so different. Time marches on. This stage is what it is; I’m lucky to have him with me on my birthday, I know that. I’m grateful. And also, quietly, grieving.

Kim Flyr is a therapist and yoga teacher; her website is kimflyrcounseling.com.

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