There is a commercial on TV that shows mothers getting their children ready for school. They take them to the bus stop and wave as the yellow bus rumbles down the road. They crane their necks to catch a last glimpse and then, instead of weeping, they kick up their heels and do a jig of joy.
This scene of sending our children off to school is repeated across the country, every fall. Sending a child to school is as much a fact of parenting as the act of giving birth. It is a rite of passage that is necessary, not only for the child’s education and emotional growth, but also for the growth of the parent.
I was a stay-at-home mom, so my children were not in day care, but all three did attend nursery school. So I thought that parting with them for a half-day of kindergarten would not be that difficult. I had just given birth to my third son when my first son started kindergarten. Fortunately he adjusted very well because I had my hands full with a new baby and three-year-old, so I did not miss him around the house.
I thought that I would be thrilled by the time my youngest entered school. I thought I would be one of those dancing women anticipating all that free time. But instead I felt a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I walked home feeling not jubilant but empty and I realized that the reason was that a part of my mothering had ended. I would never have another infant, toddler, or preschooler at home with me again. I went home and had a little weep.
I discovered that I was not alone. Each fall many parents feel weepy and sad regardless of whether it is the first or last born. We feel that way I think, because a part of who we are ends, as a part of who the child is begins.
Through the school years we take on many roles other than mother and father. We become Cub Scout or Brownie den mothers, Camp Fire leaders, volunteer librarians, field trip drivers, bakers, cooks, concession stand workers, homework assistants and sporting activity cheerleaders. We kiss our children better when they scrape a knee and wish that would work when they suffer a broken heart. We try to discuss sex and drugs and teach them values and then ultimately have to trust them to make their own mistakes. We mother and father twenty-four hours a day. We are constantly “doing” for them.
Then, like the song “Where have you gone my little boy/little girl?” we turn around and they are all grown up and off to college. No matter which child it is in the family, this move does not illicit dancing and jubilation. This is a major move, especially if they go out of town. Now, as parents you know you to are all grown up. You must be to have an eighteen-year-old!
I did not feel very grown up when my youngest son went off to college. I cried saying good-bye to him and then cried again at the airport when I saw the signs welcoming college kids to Minnesota colleges.
It took me days to get used to the quiet house, but slowly I realized that there were advantages. The house remained tidy. There were no size 10 sneakers to trip over at the back door. I did not have to listen to his music blaring. My car was my own, the seat no longer adjusted to fit a different shape. I no longer had to sleep with one ear and one eye open waiting for him to come home on a Saturday night. The house belonged to my husband and me and we could do whatever we wanted to, whenever we wanted to. A whole new relationship began. One gets used to all this and then, when they return for vacation, you are a little resentful of the invasion!
What I now realize after so many years of parenting is that, what is over is the “doing” part but not the “being” part. When we say, “I can’t wait for them to start school, stay alone, drive,” we are talking about the “doing”. But what we as parents need to cherish and enjoy, in all their stages, is the “being” part. Being means helping our children grow emotionally, loving them, encouraging them, and disciplining them. Being means watching with pride and love as they achieve their goals, not yours. Being means allowing them to leave the nest for college or work unburdened by your expectations.
So remember as you say good-bye to your child, who is entering kindergarten or college, that you may be ending your mothering and fathering, but you will always be a parent.
In his sophomore year of college, my oldest son was part of freshman orientation. He told the parents that the best parents treated their children like flowers and provided love and trust, like water and food to help them put down strong roots and grow into healthy plants. He also thanked us for doing that for him—and that is what “being” a parent is all about.