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.