You did it! You successfully launched your adult child. He or she was admitted to the college of his or her dreams and is on the way to a great four years of making lifelong friends, expanding horizons and learning everything he or she will need to know to start a great career or go to grad school. After dropping your child at college, it's your turn to sit back and relax knowing your work is done and your kid, who is now growing up, is ready to take it from here. Time for getting back to being you, instead of feeling like your only purpose in life is raising children.
There's just one problem. While your child said goodbye and seemingly hasn't looked back, you cried the whole way home and you haven't slept for days. You find yourself having panic attacks when you think about your child living without you there to help. Your child seems to feel ready for this transition, but you? Not so much.
Or maybe that's not you. Maybe you're not crying yourself to sleep in your child's bed every night, but you're dealing with the other extreme. You don't feel much of anything. You've lost your appetite and you feel nauseous most of the time. You have unexplained headaches, feel tired all day long but can't sleep at night, and you're obsessed with texting and calling your child to find out how he or she is doing. You and your spouse don't seem to have much to talk about, and you when you do try to talk to one another, it frequently ends in an argument. You're not interested in socializing with friends or doing anything, really, except finding out what is really going on with your college-aged kid. Like, obsessing about it. Like, you can't get anything done at work because you're wondering how your child is and what he or she is doing at college. Or you are home with a long to-do list but you find yourself on Facebook or watching TV all day and ending the day feeling no more accomplished than when you started. You're drinking more alcohol than usual, your exercise routine is long forgotten, and you feel like you don't know who you are anymore.
Losing Your Identity As An Individual
When raising children has been our focus for eighteen years or more, parents can feel as if we have lost our identity as individuals once the children leave the nest. In fact, we may not even know who we are anymore. Throwing all of your emotional and mental resources into being a wonderful parent to your child feels fine until the child begins the normal developmental process of beginning to individuate - separating from childhood and moving toward independent adulthood - and he or she needs you less and less. That means you have done your job well! But it can be very painful for the parent to let go. It might feel like - if my child doesn't need me the same way anymore, what is my purpose? These existential questions might seem cliché but when you're experiencing this, it can bring about a very real sense of aimlessness, hopelessness and despair.
You don't have to feel this way.
In part 3 of this series on Letting Go I will talk about issues from our past which can interfere with a "clean break" when our kids leave the nest. For now, know that you don't have to settle for feeling like this. Talk to a trusted friend, especially if you know someone else whose child is away at college. Talking to parents who have been through it can be helpful. If you tend to compare yourself to your friends, and they never let down the facade that everything is perfect, you might want to talk to an objective outsider. A therapist can help you process and move through these feelings.
Here's a hint. If it feels this way now, you will probably have a hard time as your child moves through each milestone of his or her adult life, and it will be easier for your child and for you - short term and long term - if you address what you're feeling. The goal is to raise a well-adjusted adult who is able to have happy, secure relationships. If you want this for your child, it's important to let go. And if letting go is too hard, you have some feelings which deserve your attention. Attending to our own needs is easier said than done when we've spent the past 18 or more years putting our own needs last. But it's not too late to focus on what you want and need.
Working With Me
There are several ways you can work with me if you're having trouble letting go. We can do individual psychotherapy if you can come to my office in the Baltimore area. You can attend one of my in person workshops or retreats. I can also offer coaching to help you develop a self care plan. You'll learn techniques to take care of your emotional and physical wellbeing and these coaching consultations are available either in personal or virtually. Give me a call at 443-510-1048 or send me an e-mail at email@example.com if you'd like to discuss getting started.
If you need psychotherapy outside of Maryland, I urge you to find someone you connect with and trust to help you with these feelings. It's better for you and for your child if you can let go and allow him or her to become an adult. You will be there if he or she needs you, but you will be allowing him or her to live and learn, just like you did. Your child will be okay, and you can be too.
Laura Reagan, LCSW-C