How to Cope When a Child Leaves Home
The air was balmy and the terrace of our local Sardinian restaurant was buzzing with a mix of old and young. Everyone was dressed in their finest, as they waited for their celebratory table, post-graduation. Excited chit-chat and plans for the future carried through the air and faces glowed with happiness. And I was reminded of my own 18-year old, currently backpacking her way around Europe.
It was only a week since my child had left home but I felt bereft. I felt scared, I felt I might cry, I was envious of those I saw around me and angry that we weren't joining in. She, my daughter, had got up on that morning of travel, calmly packed her tiny rucksack (didn't she need all those clothes that I had lovingly washed and folded?) and headed for the door. Bursting with anticipation, not a fear between them, I watched as she met up with her two travelling companions; friends since nursery, they turned to walk away from me.
The time had come and if I'm honest we have both been ready for it for a little while. It is the natural progress of such affairs, that our children are ours for such a short period of time. I'm reminded of Kahlil Gibran who wrote: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself." I have read it obsessively in the weeks leading up to my daughter's departure, reminding myself that our task as parents is to prepare them for this farewell. A journey that begins the second they are born and the cord that ties us to them is snipped.
Many developmental theorists write about the developmental need for “separation-individuation." This is the time when the infant begins its journey towards autonomy. It is the mother's job to support, encourage and let go, whilst remaining present and receptive to the infants need to return. Just like the toddler's break for freedom, which is quickly aborted time and time again, for the safety of the watchful, waiting, welcoming arms of the parent.
The need for our children to come and go, literally and emotionally throughout life, is a necessary part of growing up. The tussles, disagreements, unfathomable requests, and barrage of challenges we as parents navigate, doing our best to get it right and often getting it wrong. But as D.W. Winnicott said, as mothers we only have to be “the good enough mother" and it's not the mistakes we make that count but what we do with them that has an impact. I guess, if we are able to tolerate without judgment, challenge without devaluation and let go without resentment, then hopefully our little darlings will build the reserves, which they need for autonomy and gain the ability to happily fly the nest.
So as I sit here now, sipping my Pinot Grigio, I begin to smile into the crowd. I let go of my sadness, my fear, my jealousy and my anger that my lovely daughter is not here. I am able to reflect and feel happy, knowing that she has separated and individuated well enough. She has the reserves helping her to move into her life with confidence and ease. She has the thirst for new experiences giving flight to her wings as she flies the nest for adventure and I comfort myself with the thoughts of the “good enough mother."