Raising independent kids: the beautiful challenge of being left behind

Empty nest syndrome-Catherine Clark

As my daughter walked out the door to head back to university after Christmas break, I reflected that it is almost always easier to be the one doing the leaving than to be the one left behind. This is true of travel, certainly, because the traveller knows that new adventures lie ahead. But it’s also true of raising children.

Not to put too fine a point on it, raising kids is all about being left behind. Our job as parents is to raise these little people to be good humans and to give them the tools they’ll need to go out into the world on their own.

If we’re lucky, we’ve raised them to be kind and thoughtful, to make good decisions, and to be ready to take on the opportunities and challenges that will confront them at every stage of their lives – because those will be plentiful and unexpected, occasionally joyful, but sometimes heartbreaking.

But we’re not really thinking about all of that when they’re tiny. When they’re little, we’re just celebrating the fact that we’ve made it through another day intact and that no one accidentally burned down the house, shaved the cat’s head, or broke a limb.

When they’re little, we parents are right there for the celebrations and commiserations that make up their lives: baby’s first steps, the first solo bike ride without training wheels, first day of kindergarten, first trip to away-camp.

Read about: Tips for working moms from Canadian women: balancing work and parenting

But, as they get older, that celebrating and commiserating starts to happen from afar, because we did our job and our kids have become independent and capable, which is exactly what we worked so hard to achieve.

They’ve made their friends, they’ve chosen a path, and they’re out creating a world for themselves beyond the confines of the home life we built for them. They’re not abandoning us, they’re just off on a grand life adventure – as we want them to – and not for the first time as parents, we’re left behind.

That’s how I felt this morning as my fiercely independent daughter bustled out the door to catch a train back to university. She left confident in our love for her, and we know it’s mutual, but hers is the love of someone who has places to go and people to see, who has dreams to be made and challenges to be accepted, and those are all happening somewhere else, now – in the world she is creating for herself, outside of our home.

How do you deal with an adult child leaving home?

How I felt today is a bit like how I felt when she got on the bus for pre-school the first time, when she marched up the steps and took her seat like it was exactly where she was meant to be. And it was. She was fine. It was me that took a bit of adjusting, even as I sent up a silent prayer of strength for the teachers who were about to receive her.

I don’t write this because I’m wallowing in self-pity. I’m an adult, with my own life, commitments, responsibilities, and friendships to nurture, but it does remind me that we don’t own our children – they are just precious gifts given to us to protect and shape for a brief, intense moment in time.

Sometimes, we’d love to return those gifts. Possibly exchange them for another model. Maybe leave them in a locked gift cupboard for a few hours. But they’re ours and even the tough moments need to be treasured, because they’ll pass in the blink of an eye, trust me.

But when it comes down to it, getting left behind is the whole point of the journey. Our job is to give our kids the wings they need to fly on their own, because the thing about wings is that even when they carry our brave, independent children away from us to new adventures, they also carry them home again. And like legions of moms everywhere, that’s where I’ll be waiting.


The honest talk