There are rites of passage we go through as parents and generally it all begins with sleep deprivation.
Then, as we gain our footing, we get to experience the “firsts.” First word. First step. First tooth. First day of school. First boyfriend or girlfriend. First heartbreak. First graduation. First goodbye.
All of the “firsts” brim with a mix of emotions — joy, exhilaration, anxiety, wistfulness. But the thing about goodbyes when it comes to our children is that they always tug on our hearts — even after the first.
My 22-year-old son recently left the U.S. to study in Morocco. Though he has lived abroad in the past, his absence and great distance do not get easier. I knew when he was young that he would be an adventurous soul and distinctly remember him announcing at 12 years old that he planned to “travel the world.” A few years passed and sure enough he enlisted his father’s and my support to study abroad his senior year of high school.
With many defining moments in life, you don’t know how you will feel until the event occurs. In my experience as a mother, my son’s moving across the world involved complex feelings. On one hand I was beyond excited for him and knew the opportunity would expand his worldview and open up possibilities. On the other hand, I was sad and worried. Each time he says goodbye, I can’t help thinking, “What if this is the last time I see him?” But I’ve come to accept that, no matter the outcome, my son is on his own unique and self-determined path, and that is what is important.
As a new mother, I read a book by Judith Viorst called Necessary Losses (1986). Viorst discusses the mother-child bond and how difficult but necessary it is for child and parent to separate as part of a healthy relationship and for personal growth. She writes:
I’ve learned that in the course of our life we leave and are left and let go of much that we love. Losing is the price we pay for living. It is also the source of much of our growth and gain. Making our way from birth to death, we also have to make our way through the pain of giving up some portion of what we cherish. We have to deal with our necessary losses. For in leaving the blurred-boundary bliss of mother-child oneness, we become a conscious, unique and separate self, exchanging the illusion of absolute shelter and absolute safety for the triumphant anxieties of standing alone. In giving up our impossible expectations, we become a lovingly connected self, renouncing ideal visions of perfect friendship, marriage, children, family life for the sweet imperfections of all-too-human relationships.
I try to keep in mind how essential separations like these are for my son’s emotional well-being and understand it can be a catalyst for great personal growth and transformation. I always feel more at ease after I’m able to see where and with whom he’s living, and know that he has made connections with people in the community. It’s also reassuring to communicate with him every few weeks via text or Skype.
As I contemplate an ending to this short piece, I sit and look at my mother sleeping. I have traveled to be with her for a week as she recuperates from surgery. I am reminded of my role as a daughter and think back to when I first left my own family of origin. Although I didn’t leave the country, I left for college. With grace, my mother let me go while continuing to be a supportive and loving force in my life. I hope I am able to continue to model the same love and support for my children even when they are worlds away.
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