Bonds broken and rebuilt: why letting our kids go from us inevitably brings them back

Claire McCarthyMy friend Nancy says that the whole point of the senior year of high school is to make parents so fed up with their kids that they can’t wait to send them to college.

That’s certainly how it was with my second child, Zack. By the time he left, I was so frustrated and annoyed that I was counting down the minutes. Don’t get me wrong; Zack is a good kid. But increasingly he didn’t do things I asked him to do. He left garbage and destruction everywhere he went. His room, which he refused to clean (“I like it this way”), smelled like a combination of dirty socks, moldy towels, Polo Black aftershave, and another smell that’s hard to describe but reminded me of the time a bunch of mice died inside our living room walls. He’d insist on organizing himself, but was constantly losing and forgetting things—and coming to me as I was climbing into bed to ask for checks and signatures due the next day (or the day before). Not only did he fight me on curfews, he didn’t like having to tell me where he was going when he went out. “Mom, I’m going to college soon,” he’d say as we argued about it.

Which was true. He was about to be leaving and making choices for himself. The fact that he hadn’t left yet, and was still sharing living space with a family that had house rules, didn’t register with him. He was impatient to break ties and break free.

It’s easy to think of sending kids to college as the end of the parenting process, since they are leaving home—but really, it’s just part of it. Ties are always being broken.

It’s not so different, really, from when toddlers learn to walk. They get their footing, and off they go away from us, making their escape. But they come back; they don’t really want to be gone, they just want to explore and see what they can do. It’s an out-and-back thing that gets repeated again and again. The first day of kindergarten, the first dance of middle school, the first time they step out of the car to go to high school—or step into it, with your keys in their hand. Ties need to break so that children can grow; we can’t be connected to a preschooler the same way we are connected to an infant. But the ties get rebuilt. Your relationship with your fifth-grader is way more complex and interesting than your relationship with your toddler. That’s the richness of it: as we break threads in the fabric that connects us, we make space for new, more colorful threads to be woven.

Finally it was the day to drive to the College of William and Mary. Zack trashed the back seat of the minivan on the way, covering it with food wrappers and other bits of garbage, and the car began to take on the distinctive smell of his room. We begged him to be considerate of his roommate (we were feeling desperately sorry for poor J.W.). “I might just change,” he said with a smile. “It could happen.” Practically as soon as we got him there, he was ready for us to leave. He was all set, he told us. He was polite, and thanked us for driving him down, but he was clear that could take care of everything else himself and we weren’t needed.

It was more or less the same when we took our eldest to college the year before. The drive to Northeastern was only 20 minutes instead of the 12-hour trek to Virginia, so there wasn’t time for Michaela to trash the car. But once her friends from orientation showed up she wanted us gone. She was all about independence…but she would send text messages and emails, and call, and took the T out to be at family occasions. She even friended me on Facebook, something she had steadfastly refused to do during high school. Threads were broken, but the new ones each of us are weaving in are quite beautiful. Michaela is still my daughter, with everything that means. But not only is she becoming a capable and responsible adult, she is becoming my friend.

We didn’t hear much from Zack for the first week or so, and when we did talk to him he was full of confidence, he had things covered, it was all great. But the other day while I was seeing patients I got a text message from him. He wanted to drop an extra course he’d added, needed to decide by that day, what did I think? I smiled, called him in between patients, told him I thought he was making a good decision. “I just wasn’t sure,” he said, sounding more like my little boy than the super-independent man he’d been recently. Out and back. Some threads of the fabric stay.

He hasn’t friended me on Facebook, but I’m hopeful. When we Skyped with him recently, we could see in the background that his room was actually clean. That’s a new thread I really like.

11 thoughts on “Bonds broken and rebuilt: why letting our kids go from us inevitably brings them back

  1. I haven’t found it painfully challenging to let go a bit as needed until this week. I have four children and would have liked to have more, but we get by okay with 4 and more than that we might struggle. I’m a firm believer in “don’t breed em’ if you can’t feed em’.” If money grew on trees, I would have had 10. So here we are. It is the week before my youngest goes off to preschool at the local elementary school. I have spoiled her, babied her, and enjoyed having her in our family every single moment. I asked my husband to take an hour off work when I drop her off next week because I don’t think I can keep the happy face on that she needs to see. He has always been away in a war for the other children’s first day of school, so I’m glad he can physically be a part of this one. I just went back to work after being a SAHM for 10 years, but I am able to work from home. She has never set foot in a daycare and because we’re military she has never even stayed away with grandparents. This will be good for her and I am happy for her because she is very excited. I also know that it will never be the same again. It will never again just be me and her. I have seen that change with her 3 older siblings. Once they are no longer home full time and begin going to school there is always another person in their life. That is a good thing of course, but that tight bond is gone. A new bond forms, but I am very sad to entrust her to someone else for a few hours a day. There is a different bond through different phases of a child’s life. My oldest is only 11 but I can already see that. I guess I am just very sad to have the last child heading off to school. Sheesh, I bet that sounds totally insane to mothers who haven’t stayed at home!

  2. This article could not have come at a better time for me. Thank you, Dr.McCarthy for writing it, someone else knows how I feel!!! I am ab out to send my baby 18 y.o.daughter off to college. My other child decided on going to College nearby…..but this one, no the further the better!!! She was initially going to Liberty Univ in Virginia, not too bad, a lot of friends from Church went there also so they would all be going together!! Nope, she couldn’t decide if she wantedx to go there or not, sooo naturally she procrastinated long enough to make sure that they were closed to admissions by the time she said “yes to the school”!!! That was my fault, by the way!!! She had also mentioned going away to San Diego’s “Point Loma”, but I told her that was out, it was too far away and I know she had other motives to go there…We live in Massachusetts, I am widowed, my husband was from S.D. and we, as a family visited S.D. at least once per year, but mostly twice. So now are you getting the picture more clearly? In her mind, S.D. means Daddy and fun times, she doesn’t get the connection that I, as her parent, knows what she is doing, subconsciencely, I beleive. Today, as we signed her up for classes at the local C.C. for the fall semester (just until she can get to Liberty in Jan 2011) springs on me that she doesn’t even want to go to Liberty,”I am making her”, she wants to go to Point Loma, S.D.??????? I am just shocked and disoriented at this point and just do not know what to do! There is no financial commitment to Liberty at this point, however, I know she want Pt.Loma, for all the wrong reasons and I cannot make her see that. Aside from the fact that she will be 3,000 miles away from home (she has never been away fr home) I told her she cannot just say I want to go home for the weekend like she can at Liberty!! I really need some help in making the decision…do I let her go to S.D.(knowing its the wrong thing), or should I insist that she go to Liberty U. where she has always wanted to go for the last 3yrs…I am really confused and could use some advice!!!! Is there anyone who have experienced this sort of thing? Can you help me decide what to do? Any assist would be so very helpful..I cannot tell you how very much I need help in making this very difficult decision…..This is when I miss my husband soooooo much. This would be a decision we would make together, as a family, but now it is all up to me…….Please help!!!

  3. It’s not just our kids who want to be back, but even we start missing them from day one and hence are much more forgiving in our attitude, which in turn help our children bond better with us.

  4. Thank you for sharing. It was a very good article. I emailed it to my grandson who is in his first year of college.

  5. Thank you Dr. McCarthy.. I have an 18yd old and it was hard to give him my car keys for his new f/t job… I hope soon he goes to school as well thank you for your advice at I know i’m not the only one out there w/ fears of letting go.

  6. I can only imagine how hard this is for you–especially trying to do it alone. There are so many things going on emotionally, no wonder you are feeling overwhelmed. You’re right, you need help. A trusted family member (by trusted I mean someone both you and your daughter trust) might be able to help the two of you sort things out–an even better idea might be a counselor, to get some skilled help as you navigate this really difficult decision.

  7. I am having the same experience with my son who is a senior and trying to be patient as he starts to break away. I am convinced that God has plan to make parents want to push their birds from the nest to go to college !My husband who travels weekly cannot understand why I keeping saying he should go to college now as he does not see the little ways he is asserting his independance .I am excited for my son and for the opportunity the world has waiting for him and I will cry a year from now when I drop him at college but I will know in my heart he is ready and he will always need his parents.

  8. Thanks for your encouragement. As we went to leave she turned around to hug her Daddy and wouldn’t let go of him. He was away so much of her young life that it has taken her a while to establish a strong bond with him. There were adult tears shed as we said goodbye, but this time they were not mine. In one of those everyday moments that being away for years at a time makes a person appreciate so much, the tears came from Daddy as his little girl clung to him for the first time in their lives. It turned out to be a special and memorable day that she will only understand when she is older.

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