I remember being shocked when I asked a friend how she was feeling about her eldest child moving out. She smiled and confided wearily: “It’s time. For all of us.” At that stage in my own life, both of my boys were still young enough to insist on curling around me as we all watched a movie together like a small tribe of monkeys. I literally could not envision them leaving home without welling up and feeling physically empty and panic stricken. I would feel as though I had swallowed a stone. But I now know that nature has a way of clearing that up quite nicely. And it looks like this:
I mistakenly congratulated myself when my sons were 16 that the worst was over – it’s a closely guarded secret (spoiler alert!) that the worst years for heart-pounding, desperate parental anxiety are 17-22. Yes, I know a sweeping generalization and if this has not been your reality I bow to you. However, a random survey in my office and beyond tells me that this is the case (and that no one else is admitting it) so I remain convinced. Of course, beyond the constant anxiety dwells irritation and frustration – how did such selfishness ever get a foothold? Was it my fault? I often felt that my relationship with them had been distilled down to benevolent taxi driver and short-order cook. Huge volumes of food were consumed without thoughts for my meager budget (a rotisserie chicken intended for dinner combined with a family size orange juice = the perfect snack and then the plastic dome wrapping will be left beside the bed). Then there was the unspeakable mess in their rooms which required excavation and ominous crunching sounds just to reach the other side. Apple cores with their sweet fermented smell, empty Jack Daniel bottles, lighters, condoms (obv not new) stray DVDs and gaming discs never to be united with cases, lone socks and enough pens to supply a small army yet no one had actually been sighted with a pen in their hand for the last 10 years – what is that? Clean laundry was deposited at the door but the tightly folded and fragrant will soon be intermingled with the dirty and then no one knows which is which and only one of us cares. (Hint: it’s the person with the wild-eyed look and lips drawn back from their teeth known as “Mum.”)
And actually doing that laundry makes the pendulum swing wildly back to anxiety because the pervasive sour, dank, smell of pot permeates every item and makes my thoughts race as I see myself rushing to various emergency scenes. My heart would beat harder as I dipped up and down from the dryer. Then the repetitive thought pattern: I must really talk to them. Again. This time will be different. I would wait and wait till I heard the key in the door and then briefly hopeful and excited for resolution, recite my concerns trying hard not to lecture, first coherently but ultimately, sobbing on my knees. Audience reaction? Boredom. Irritation. Subsequent Leisurely Texting. After waiting hours to see them I might then be told in a flat tone that “Okay you make no sense – going out.” Let me tell you that lack of estrogen is not nearly as potent as the twisting agony of pure heartache for making women age more quickly.
Fast forward – though it won’t seem fast. Once they leave home it may still be poignant and sad but I personally did not find myself as traumatized as I had anticipated. (And for this I also had guilt, what the WHAT?) I did however find myself able to read quietly with a largish glass of wine and my own wheel of brie that no one would steal as I slept. I don’t miss the in-your-face worry of bongs and other Weed of Wisdom accessories much either.
There’s no summary statement here I guess, but here’s the advice I wish I had been given: Don’t give, give, give till there is nothing left of yourself but an empty husk. Do something kind or fun for yourself. Right. Now. And don’t blame yourself. Above all do not pay attention to parents who have not had any “issues” at all and are puzzled that you are having any? These people are evil and probably liars. Either way, avoid their company.
With time and good fortune the balance has now shifted for me and slowly those boys have become kinder, more thoughtful and I like to think, more introspective. I am so grateful they have circled back towards me. (Even if they are only really circling for food …)