Saying Goodbye to Your Adult Child

There once was a single mom whose son joined the military. She missed him terribly, and greatly enjoyed his brief, rare visits home whenever he could get a weekend pass. He was stationed in Florida, so driving home to Chicago and back took up much of the weekend, giving this mom only a few precious hours with her son.

Then one weekend he came home just long enough to say that he was going out with a girl he’d been writing to. Leaving his bag of dirty laundry in the foyer, he shaved and changed into a new suit, then flew out the door.

Late that night, after dropping his date off at her house, he arrived home to see his dirty laundry scattered across the front yard. Some of it was hanging from the trees. He had just enough time to gather up his clothes and head back to Florida, leaving one very angry mom in his wake.

That’s a true story. I often heard both sides of it, because the mom was my grandmother, the son was my dad, and his date was my mom. Whenever my dad told the story, he always laughed about it. But when my grandma told it, anyone could see that she hadn’t completely gotten over her anger.

It wasn’t just the dirty laundry that he expected her to wash, of course. It was the idea that she was no longer his priority when he came home. The many sacrifices she’d made for him and his siblings no longer seemed to matter. All he cared about was some girl he’d met, at least as far as my grandma was concerned.

Another true story that happened to a friend of mine, who is a mom of many children: one of her middle children was the first to go away to college. He was the family clown whose sunny disposition was a bright spot in her life. But whenever he came home for the weekend, he was so busy with his friends that she hardly got to see him. Needless to say, she was very excited that he would be home for the summer, working a summer job to earn money for the coming school year.

Imagine her disappointment when he called to say that he was able to borrow a lot more than he expected in student loans, so he would be spending the summer touring Europe with friends. She barely saw him at all that summer; by the time he came home from Europe, he had to pack up and leave for the fall semester of college.

I felt sorry for my friend when that happened, just as I felt sorry for my grandma when she talked about throwing my dad’s dirty laundry out of the window in anger. But it wasn’t until I had to let go of my own kids that I truly understood how my friend and my grandma felt. It hurts, a lot, and the kids don’t notice because they’re too busy taking on their future.

That said, what’s the alternative? Do you really want to lock up that adult child and keep them close, preventing them from leaving home, finding work, finding love? A common Internet meme is the 30-year-old living in Mom’s basement playing video games and trolling forums. Is that how you hoped your child would turn out? I doubt it.

No, we have to let our kids go. It’s OK to acknowledge the hurt, and to move on (which can be even more difficult than the original letting go). But it has to be done, so that your child can become the person God intends them to become. It also frees you to embrace the next stage of your own life (which is a whole ‘nother topic.)

Readiness Applies to Adults, Too

(I try not to invade my adult children’s privacy too much, so please forgive the vagueness of this post.)

One of my children, the one who most ignored what I taught them about money, is now (finally) watching what they spend and trying to keep their expenses down. You can’t imagine how happy this makes me.

You see, as a homeschooling parent, I got used to quick (if not instant) results. For instance, I could tell how my kids were doing in math by the percentage of problems they got right. If the percentage was low, we’d work harder on math and soon the percentage would go up. Victory!

But what I’ve forgotten in the years since my children grew up is something I proclaim to younger homeschooling parents all the time: readiness! How well I remember that my kids learned to read when they were ready. Starting before they were ready only resulted in frustration.

So while it’s good that I taught my kids how to live debt-free while they were teens, the problem is that I expected them all to live that way from day one. One of them did, but the others have been learning slowly as they needed to learn, as their readiness developed. I’m just beginning to understand that readiness is a concept that applies to adults as well as children.

I need to remember this when my adult children make mistakes that fly in the face of what they were taught. Apparently they weren’t ready for that particular lesson when we were homeschooling. Now that they’ve reached a point where the lesson actually applies to their life, I guess I just need to be available in case they ask for help…and be happy that they finally did learn the lesson.


One Busy Guy

When I write about homeschooling and mention that all my children have pursued their own interests, I do mean ALL of them, even my youngest, who has Down syndrome.

I remember the social worker who told me, shortly after his birth, that he would watch his older siblings do things, but because of his innate lack of curiosity he wouldn’t do much himself. In fact, she actually said he would “watch the world go by.” As an involved parent with several years of childrearing under her belt, I found that very depressing.

Fortunately, it turned out to be wrong. In fact, by the time he was two or three, the family joke was that we were going to take him back to her office and let him loose so he could take the place apart as he did our house. Maybe then she would stop depressing other parents with her outlook.

The fact is that our son has plenty of curiosity. He expressed it physically far earlier than verbally. He was still pretty young when he began climbing into the refrigerator and the oven. He often narrowly avoided catastrophe when attempting to surf down the stairs or taste electrical cords. I once caught him trying to nuke his brother’s watch in the microwave. He was nothing if not intrepid.

These days he’s a young man. We’re no longer “doing school” as we did for so many years, but he manages to keep busy and most importantly, he pursues his interests. His days often begin with singing; this morning he burst into song along with Joseph in one of his favorite movies, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” He sings with all the fervor (if not the enunciation) of a Broadway star. It’s a pleasure to hear him.

He also has his own ideas about getting exercise. While I coax him on occasional walks, and his dad takes him bowling every week, he loves to take time out from his day to dance along with the “High School Musical” gang. I think he must know all the dance numbers by heart now, and he works up a sweat trying to imitate the dancers perfectly. Most of the time he does this with his door shut, but occasionally he requires an audience and whoever happens to be at home obliges. It’s always a good time.

He also likes to work out, and will occasionally take over the hallway to see if he can top his record of push-ups or sit-ups. He has a favorite barbell he uses to work on his biceps, which he flexes for anyone who asks (or even if they don’t).

He has other interests, including his latest, using Skype with his big brother and infant nephew. Last week he tried Skyping with his best friend, who also has Down syndrome. Those guys had a great time.

He’s so busy pursuing his interests that he often doesn’t want to stop in order to go with me to the grocery (where he mans the cart and does the scanning) or on other errands. He usually lets me know I’m interrupting his day before giving in and coming with me. But as soon as we get home, he goes back to what he was doing before I dragged him away from it.

Other people don’t understand this. They ask me why he isn’t in a sheltered workshop or bagging groceries somewhere. Seriously, I don’t think he has the time!


We Can’t Be Number One With Our Kids Forever

I’ve always enjoyed Dame Maggie Smith’s work, so I found this recent interview with her interesting. In it she talks about her loneliness since she became a widow and how she handles it by working as often as possible.

One thing she said really caught my attention: now that her husband is gone, she realizes she’s no longer number one with anyone. That sounds like a very lonely place to be. Then there’s the unspoken inference: not only does she miss the special relationship she had with her husband, but as a mother of children, she realizes that she’s no longer number one with them.

And that’s how it should be, since adult children need their independence and all that, but it can be hard for us mamas to accept. We spent so much time with our children, and they looked to us for everything, so much so that sometimes we had to hide in the bathroom to get a little peace (and even that didn’t always work). Then our kids grew up and one-by-one left home and found others to spend their time with. Before we knew it, we became just another item on the to-do list (“Call Mom”) or just another Facebook friend.

I just reread that last paragraph and it sounds kind of cynical at the end. Sorry, but that’s how it feels sometimes, and I have kids who keep in touch. But I know others who only hear from their kids every few months, so it’s even harder for them. It’s not that we need to keep busy with our own activities (although that surely helps), it’s that there’s this big hole in our lives where our kids used to be, demanding snacks and needing baths; filling that hole with work and hobbies just doesn’t cut it.

I know there are lots of suggested solutions for this loneliness that comes from widowhood or an empty nest or both; clearly Dame Maggie Smith’s solution is work. But I think her honesty is probably the most helpful part of her example. It’s always comforting to know you’re not alone, I suppose.

The Temptation to Create Mama’s Boys (and Girls)

Apparently there’s a new reality television show in the works called “Mama’s Boys of the Bronx.” It focuses on adult men who still live at home and allow their mothers to coddle them. According to this article,

The show follows the escapades of these men at work, at home or enjoying New York’s nightlife before they come home to their doting moms, who spend their days trying to keep tabs on the partying, dreaming and scheming of their sons.

It’s easy to poke fun at these men, and I’m sure most young women would look at them as poor marriage prospects. I mean, who wants to compete with a guy’s mother for his affection?

That said, I can see how a mom might end up in this position if she isn’t careful. It’s hard to let go of our kids, especially with so many dangers in the world that we hear about every day; it’s natural to want to keep our chicks safely tucked under our wings. Then there’s the fact that raising kids to adulthood means losing control of their lives. That’s how it should be, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.

Those of us who homeschooled our kids to adulthood spent many years in control of our kids’ schedules, their meals, their activities…let’s face it, we were in charge of them 24/7. But once they become adults, we have to relinquish that control. (It’s easiest if you start letting go, little by little, when they’re in their early teens, but that still doesn’t make it pain-free for us moms.)

But if we don’t let go, if we spend our days “trying to keep tabs” on them, or even if we just try to weigh in on every decision they make, or prevent them from achieving independence by offering free room and board, free car use, and spending money, what we effectively do is cripple them, emotionally and financially. Doing so also keeps them from enjoying their freedom (hopefully in a God-pleasing way) before they start their own families. So even though it may go against our mama instincts, we need to cut them loose for their own good.

It’s also for our own good. Mothers who spend their time caring for adult children that are perfectly capable of life on their own are crippling themselves. Once the child-rearing years are over, it’s time for these women to go back to other productive pursuits in their lives. Perhaps coddling their adult children helps them avoid the reality that their day-to-day job is over and they need to figure out what’s next.

That’s a scary thought. It requires waiting on God to show us the next thing that “He planned in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). It also means letting go of our desire to control our own lives as we wait for our next assignment. As a recently retired homeschool mom, I struggle with this all the time.