So my brother calls me this morning, right at the moment that I am crying because my husband and I have just opened an anniversary card from our middle child and it was so so beautiful and she lives so far away.
We have this conversation, my brother and me. I tell him that I am having great difficulty handling the emotions associated with letting go of my adult children.
I tell him – and he agrees – that it’s really ironic that I am having this problem, considering the fact that I was so intent on getting away from my own family as a young woman.
And without missing a beat, he says he thinks that there is a ying and yang here, that is, the emotions that drove me to leave my past behind, are related to the emotions that I am experiencing now.
He has known me all my life of course. He reminds me that as a child I had what we call the “aroo tummin?” (are you coming?) complex, shorthand for me not ever wanting to separate from my mother. This separation anxiety was so severe that at age 12, when I went to stay with my cousin one summer, I wet my bed. I think I remember coming home to my Mom earlier than I was supposed to.
I remember a conversation with her afterwards that went something like this: “Mom, if I can’t leave you now then how am I going to get married someday?” My mom, smiling, responded by saying, “Well, I guess we’ll all just have to come with you, in a caravan of cars!”
My brother (who is older than me by almost two years) noted that when I turned seventeen I wanted nothing more than to escape the family. I needed to go as far away as possible in order to become the person I was going to be. I spent years living in California and a variety of other places.
And then, boom, at 29 or 30 I made another switch, this time deciding I wanted to have my own family. My husband and I came back to live only an hour from my folks. I folded my emotions into my three kids, and enjoyed close relationships with my parents and siblings and other members of my family. Through all the kids' growing up years, I didn't give much thought to the fact that like me, my three offspring were going to have to separate in order to live their own independent and productive lives. My mother would express this irony with one of her favorite phraises: "What goes around comes around."
So here I am today, with the kids grown, reliving the same emotions that I felt as a child, terrified of the separation, worrying and anxious that I’ll never accept the fact that children grow up and move away. The empty nest remains the empty nest, until you as a parent fill your life with new activities and meaningful relationships.
And of course you continue to love your children. And of course you have relationships with each of them. But you don’t put yourself through misery every time you think about how wonderful it was to have your kids as they grew up. You listen to your husband ask “Aren’t you glad your children are happy and productive people?” and "Can't you enjoy all the wonderful memories you have of them?"
Just then the tears bubble up and that’s precisely the moment my brother calls to ask me about this hotel in Rome and after I answer him, he asks how I am and instead of lying and saying I’m fine, I tell him the truth: that I am having trouble adjusting to my role as the mother of adult children. He tells me that yes it’s an objectively difficult problem, and then he offers his wisdom, that some of the impulses and emotions I feel today are intricately tied up in with the way I felt as a child growing up. He adds: “Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.”
I thank him and say that I am afraid if I write about this issue, I am going to make myself depressed and he says “No, I think just the opposite is going to happen.” He says he thinks that I need to deal with this problem and writing about it in a clear way might be exactly the right cure.
I’m not sure about that, but then again, as soon as I hung up the phone, I ran to my computer and wrote down what you see here.
To be continued…