Graduating from Parenthood

The kids are not the only ones leaving the nest this spring. Parents are graduating too, ready or not, especially if their child will be leaving home for college or a new job. Graduations are the end-of-a-life phase, and there is an art to doing it well.

Children cost time, money, and energy, but they give us an all-important mission in life. While one study found that childless couples reported higher life satisfaction, people with children reported having more meaning in their lives. Instead of the quick pleasure of doing what we want, we can find meaning in contributing to our kids’ future welfare—a diabolical trade-off, to be sure.

Life with dependent children is vastly simplified. Decisions are made on the basis of how things might affect the kids. Limiting our choices is one of the things children do best. Restrictions on our freedom give an odd kind of security, like having a map with clearly marked routes instead of vast unexplored territory. There are only a few ways of giving kids what they need, and these things often weed out what we would prefer to do on our own. After a while, we get used to thinking this way.

Then the children grow up and leave, taking our map with them.

It is a little like getting released from a job you thought you would have for the rest of your life. What that feels like will depend on how identified you were with your parenting role. It might be a relief, like the person in a convertible with the license plate KIDZRGON. But it might also feel like hello, freedom—goodbye, meaningfulness.

As children mature, their job is to need us less and less. We are responsible only for the beginning of their lives, not the rest of it. When the adolescent part of a child’s life is wrapping up, the parent mentally graduates from parent to bystander. We are no longer their safety net; we have graduated to being spotters. Kids may still need financial help or occasional advice and suggestions, but the parents at some point must sit on their hands and let events unfold.

The essential question becomes: do we trust our kids? Do we trust that somewhere deep inside them is a force for maturity, even if it is not looking like that at the time? Do we trust that ultimately they will learn from their mistakes and figure out the consequence-equation of life? Do we trust that they will rise to the level that is just right for them, all things considered?

Many people answer these questions with a yes, but… We hope that our children will be able to survive out there, but their behavior so far may not inspire confidence. Raising a child to the point of graduation is like being in on the sausage making—and then being expected to have a different reaction when it arrives on your breakfast plate. It just does not seem possible that all those years of childish behavior are going to add up to a capable adult.

Yet that is job number one for the graduating parent. Somehow our disbelief must be suspended in the service of our child’s creating his or her own adult story. As our legal responsibilities to our children end, we begin to worry how they will handle being legally responsible for themselves. If their bedrooms are any indication, we may fear complete chaos. Somehow we have to trust that organization and getting up on time will happen if we let it. We have to trust that there will be things they want as adults that will motivate them into maturity. We may not believe this, but we have to try. Forming a positive fantasy about children’s eventual maturity helps them have faith in themselves. We have to believe in them before they show any signs of deserving it.

Of course, we think our worry is about them, but maybe it is about us.

Maybe somewhere in our parenting heart we are terrified about what we will do if we no longer have the mission of looking out for our child’s safety and well being. Who will we be without that worry? What unexplored parts of ourselves and our lives may come to the forefront? Are we nervous about a void we do not want to face?

Facing the void is an important part of any life transition, as William Bridges talks about in his excellent book, Transitions. When the old way has come to an end and we cannot go back (a nice definition of graduation, by the way), there can be a highly uncomfortable period of not knowing what is coming next. We may find that we long for the safety of what we did before. For our children’s sake, however, we must keep looking forward into our own void, trusting that just as they find their adult way, we can find our post-parenting way. Until we accept our own graduation to bystander-spotter, we will keep seeing our children as children when they really need to be seen as nascent adults.

Finding our own way forward and celebrating our parental transition is one of the best graduation gifts we can give our kids. They don’t need a new car as much as they need this. Knowing that you have a parent who has confidently turned responsibility for your life over to you can be an incredibly freeing experience. It does not mean that we never help our kids, nor even that we miraculously stop worrying about them. It just means that their life is no longer our life, and at some deep level we accept that. Like a spotter we may still have to step in and help them avoid a catastrophic event, but then we step back and do our best to resume bystander mode.

Our message to them needs to be: you’ll get it, just keep trying. It is the same message we need to tell ourselves when life after parenting seems a little pale and we don’t know what we are going to do next. It is a normal feeling after parental graduation. We, like our kids, need time to figure it out.  

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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