It’s almost the start of the fall semester for most college students, which means it’s heart-wrenching time for a lot of parents. Me included.
Kids are leaving home. They’re going away to college, never to return.
Oh sure, they’ll be back from time to time. They’ll bounce home for Christmas, maybe Thanksgiving. Some will trudge back to do laundry every Sunday if they’re nearby. Some will slouch back next summer and lie around on the couch for three months, making absolute nuisances of themselves. Some will move into the basement at age 27. I understand all that. I also understand that if a kid WASN’T leaving home at this stage, we’d be likely to go stark raving bananas. (“Now I know why tigers eat their young!” Rodney Dangerfield said in “Caddyshack.”)
But knowing that doesn’t make goodbye any easier. Because when kids leave home, their childhood is over. They’re not kids anymore. The family that you’ve known before no longer exists. The time of your life as a parent of a child? That’s gone.
So how, exactly, are you supposed to say goodbye? How are you supposed to get through that moment, showing compassion and love without making the kid feel that his new independence is a tragedy? Are you supposed to act happy and upbeat? Wouldn’t that make him think you’re celebrating the fact that he’s out of your hair?
My oldest left a few days ago, taking off on an airplane halfway across the country. He got off the plane in the rain, dragged a ton of luggage around a big city, and called home, forlorn, that night. He didn’t know anybody, and nobody knew him. It’s going to be tough for him, too. I’ve been there.
But that’s a different story. This one is about what happens at home.
There are a million questions, and I don’t have answers. Probably there’s a guide somewhere I should have read, a “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” the birth of this new adult. There’s almost certainly a Facebook group, or hashtag-something-or-other. Dunno. What I do know is that we’re navigating some choppy emotional seas.
The first issue: What to do about the kid’s room?
Do you leave it as is—a shrine to the kid now gone? Do you preserve it the way he remembered it so he has a comforting sense of home? So that he doesn’t feel that the center of his universe has evaporated? So that YOU don’t feel the sense that the kid has been erased?
But if you do that, what do you say to the younger sibling who wants to take over what used to be the older kid’s room? Do you tell that kid he can never have it? Or do you say he has to wait? Six months? A year?
And if you leave it exactly as is, isn’t that sort of creepy? Shouldn’t you move on?
Then, let’s say in a few more years that younger kid moves away, and the youngest sibling wants that room? What then? Do you have to obey the six-month preservation dictum?
Or, if you let the younger kid take the room right away, do you tell the one who just moved away what you’ve done? Or do you just do it quietly, to avoid rattling him any more than necessary? If so, then when’s the right time to tell him? Just after the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving?
Here’s what happened in our case: The younger kid took the room and started dismantling it about 12 seconds after walking through the door.
Fair enough. It is a much bigger room with its own bathroom – primo real estate. We had told the oldest before he left what would happen. We also told him what was happening when it happened, even going so far as sending him a video. He was clearly distraught. In retrospect, we probably should have let him better adjust to his new environment before slapping him with the vid. But we’re better operating above-board.
Here’s what I told the oldest: Listen, son, home is where there are people who love you, and people you love. That will never change. You can always come back here, and we will always love you. We miss the heck out of you already, and we want you to come home as soon as you can. But a room is just a room. Posters on the wall can be put up someplace else. Time marches on, but you’ll always have what’s most important, and that’s a place in our heart.
Actually, that’s what I WISH I had told the oldest one. What I actually said was something like: Mmmmph. Haarrrgh. Bbbllllrrrr.
The emotions of a kid leaving home don’t lead to clear thinking and articulate speech.