It’s the end of summer, and as the school year starts post the summer break, we find many of our friends going through the phase of dropping their kids to university for the first time. Emotions that are a part and parcel of this important moment in parents’ lives have been the topic of many a chat, taking us back to when we went through the same. Sharing is a great way of helping each other in this time of stress. As we shared our experiences and reflections with our friends, I thought it might help to pen them down, in the same spirit of sharing with other parents.
It’s but natural for a parent to feel the anxiety of separation. After all, when your baby, your flesh and blood, whose life has been your world since he/she was born, is about to move away from you, the tug at the heart is agonizing. As parents, we work hard and do our best for our kids, balancing between loving and shaping, indulging and disciplining, in the hope that they become independent and capable of flying on their own some day. How ironic it is then, that when the moment arrives for that hope to become a reality, it breaks our heart with the realization that that they are now about to really fly away. We are torn between wanting to see them soar high and wanting to hold them back, two wishes that we know can hardly be fulfilled together. Brains admit but hearts refuse to accept that, causing anguish and anxiety. Parents have to cope with it, everyone finds their way; here is how we did.
Parental anxiety can loom large on everything in this situation. For one, we decided that we would not let that happen – this was a happy occasion, an event to celebrate – our child had done well in school, and was moving on to bigger and better things. We had all worked hard for this outcome, so it had to be experienced with joy and pride, not sadness. As we prepared for him to leave, we ensured that there was exhilaration and excitement about his starting a new life in a new place with new friends, about the trip to drop him, about helping him set up his new room, and so on; we never let our anxiety overshadow it.
The same positivity had to be maintained after we returned from dropping him. But this was not easy. For the last 17-18 years, our lives and our household had revolved around the pivot of our child – his school, his activities, his exams, his competitions, his parties, his favourite dishes, his moods… While we thoroughly enjoyed giving all to him and would do it again any time happily for him, it is equally true that in doing so, we had forgotten what it was like to live for ourselves. The thought of losing the pivot of one’s life can be terrifying as a parent. And this sense of loss can lead to the inset of disorientation and emptiness in life. This is probably the genesis of the phrase “empty nesters”, but I find this phrase quite negative and despondent, almost victim-like. My husband and I decided that the only way to tackle this was to turn this notion right on its head – we thought of ourselves as “free birds” not “empty nesters”!
And the moment we thought of it that way, it turned into a positive inspiration. Now that we were going to be relatively free, we could actually think of doing what WE wanted to do and what we WANTED to do. Giving this some thought, both of us zoomed in on a couple of our long-lost hobbies that we wanted to revive or wanted-to-do-but-never-had-the time kind of activities that we could now start. We committed ourselves to some of these activity schedules (fitness/ art/ music/ photography/ writing etc), to start after we returned from the university-drop-off trip. Honestly, that was one of the smartest things we did – because after we were back, without having to think too much, we got into a new routine with those activities, which helped us keep our minds gainfully occupied while we adjusted to our new reality. Also, the mentality of “free birds” made us discover and explore new degrees of freedom that we had gained – for instance, we suddenly realised one day that we did not need to wait for December for a vacation any more! We could pack our bags and travel ANY time we wanted because school vacations were not relevant – when this realization dawned on us, we laughed out with joy, and almost to prove the point to ourselves, travelled that same weekend. This positive approach to the situation was a big help to get over the phase smoothly, allowing us the belief that we could actually enjoy it.
The toughest act in this transition is the part of letting go – while the physical goodbyes happen at drop-off, it takes much longer mentally and emotionally to really let go. A hundred doubts hammer the mind – what, how, when, what if….? How can one feel confident enough that the child can take care of him/ herself so as to feel comfortable to let go? We learnt that the biggest enabler for this is to trust the upbringing we have ourselves given to our child. One needs to believe that the learning and values one has imparted to the child will stick, will work and will hold him/her in good stead on the new path. This belief really worked for us as we held hands and told ourselves that we had to trust the work we had done, and we had to trust that it will do its job. This confidence in the upbringing and training we had given him, gave us the confidence of letting go emotionally.
The next adjustment that comes quickly after this stage is to settle into a long-distance relationship with the child, another tough ask especially if there are big time zone differences, as was the case with us. This is a strange new way of life that one can never prepare for ahead of time; it takes time getting used to. Every child is different and would have a different way of staying in touch with their home, so parents have to find their own schedule and rhythm. It took us a while to find ours – we tried different ideas – some failed, some worked partly or temporarily, but we kept trying until we found a loose rhythm that was mutually acceptable and feasible. Phew!
The rhythm settled, one now needs to ensure the right quality of interaction – the next challenge, and another tough one. First, the child is no longer the child one is used to – he/she is an adult who deserves and expects to be treated like one. The parent now needs to transition to the role of a coach or facilitator – a very different role from the much bigger one they are used to so far. And they have to make this change while also transitioning to a long-distance interaction. It is difficult. That phone call on which this interaction happens can be quite chaotic – the short time can get crowded with many topics, crammed with different messages and sensitive with widely varying emotions from both sides. Again, it takes time, patience and a few edgy interactions – but at the end of it, you get to the sweet spot. We did too. Conversations got into a rhythm. While we discussed many things, what mattered the most was knowing each other’s well-being.
What also mattered to us was to know that despite the distance and the crown of adulthood our child now wore, he continued to feel comfortable and secure to reach out to us when he needed us. As he took a leap into the big world, it was critical that he knew that he always had a line back to his safe haven called home. We used our interactions to reinforce this point subtly but clearly. This worked really well – this assurance of the continued existence of his safe haven helped him build confidence to tackle his new world with its new challenges. And the increasing ease with which he reached out to us when he did not feel good or felt frustrated or stuck or needed advice, assured us that we would know when he needed help and could therefore do what was needed. This was a big relief and stress-buster for us, allowing us to miss him without worrying about what we might not know – and this is when we truly settled into our new reality. It took a while, but we did arrive, and safely.
In summary, to all my friends ready to drop your child to university – yes, it’s a big transition and yes it’s natural to feel stressed and emotional. I urge you look at the situation not with despondence, but with positivity, as it’s an occasion to celebrate – you child is moving on to bigger and better things, and so can you. After nurturing it and making your little bird capable, you are now about to allow it to take its flight into the world. Have confidence in the upbringing you have given which is the wind beneath their wings, and assure them that the nest is always theirs to come back to – this will allow them to soar with confidence and will enable you to let go. Approach the long-distance relationship with patience, understanding and respect for your newly minted adult, and you will see a lovely new relationship blossoming. It’s all good and will turn out well. So stop worrying, go with the flow and smile, and see how life smiles back at you … 😊