Leaving Home, A Chapter Excerpt: The Psychology of Letting Go
The last step in parental love involves the release of the beloved; the willing cutting of the cord that would otherwise keep the child in a state of emotional dependence.
LEWIS MUMFORD, The Conduct of Life, chapter 9, 1951
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
BOB DYLAN, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” 1963
Those we love can but walk down to the pier with us — the voyage we must make alone.
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY, letter to Mrs. Procter; 26 November 1856
Let your children go if you want to keep them.
MALCOLM S. FORBES, “Passing Parade,” The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm: The Capitalist’s Handbook, 1978
It is humbling to discover that expected regularities of life can be so difficult. Children growing up and leaving home is one of those natural, expected, inevitable events that go with the design of life. Yet letting go of my children has been, and still is, one of the hardest things I have ever done. At every level, there is a loss of one relationship—with a baby or a toddler, or zestful 5-year-old or feisty teenager; and every time there is at least a little sadness that goes with the changes. There is also the ordeal aspect of necessary transformation we must undergo, what I describe in chapter 4 as “parenting as emotional healing,” in order to free ourselves up to have an alive relationship with our children on terms that connect with who they now are—be that a cuddly baby or 3rd grader, a defiant toddler or adolescent, or, as in my own poignant situation, an emerging adult who is so absorbed in their own life that they just don’t call you back nearly as often as you like! Bittersweet is not quite the right word to describe the powerful combination of pride and satisfaction, on the one hand, and missing your child, on the other. And “Get a life, John!” is a bit too harsh, though it is true that is one key—a teacher long ago told me that sacrifice can be translated as “next;” you let go of an attachment so that you can refocus your attention and be present now, as the song goes, to “love the one you’re with.”
I can think of a few relevant stories. When my son Eric was about 14, he expressed an interest in playing football. I had played the sport for years when I was young, had some body pain still as a result, and did not want him to play that violent game. He knew how I felt, but he brought it forward, and I knew this was one I needed to let go. At the time, 11 years ago, the United States was just going off to what I considered a cruel and unnecessary war. What I told Eric was that I would not try to stop him from playing football, that although it was not my preference, I would be there to cheer for him if he decided to play. However, I also let him know that if he ever wanted to join the U.S. military, it would be “over my dead body.” The latter was obviously a symbolic statement; fortunately my son shares my views on killing and on U.S. militaristic aggression. Also fortunately for me, and him I think, he chose basketball and lacrosse as his sports of choice. There is more about my dealings with Eric below, but here are a couple of tales about my fathering with Vanessa. When the kids were little, they practiced karate for a while. Eric went through a few belts before he quit about age ten to go for team sports like soccer and basketball. Vanessa was between four and six when she took karate classes, and when she wanted to also quit, I really did not want her to. I tried to convince her, encourage her, to keep on, as I liked her doing it and think it is very important to support girls to be physically powerful. But she was not having it and I let go. What did happen for Vanessa, though, is she developed a taste for being “hard-core,” and joined the rowing team at school, where she won an erging competition after rowing so hard she threw up afterwards, and got a couple of silver medals at the state championship. Although the coaches and others really wanted Vanessa to continue, telling her how she could surely get a full scholarship to college, and I liked her power and success, she simply got tired of it and moved on. I let go. She let us know she would get a scholarship anyway, and she got pretty much a full ride to a prestigious liberal arts college, based on her academic prowess! After quitting rowing, even though she hated getting up early, she decided to join the cross-country team, and was very disciplined and dedicated even though she was not a particularly fast runner. She got sixth place at state, as a junior varsity runner, and she got the spirit trophy at the awards banquet. Young people tend to do very well, when we support them in their decisions, and believe in them, and let go. They also teach us.
Before I go on, I want to share with you a sampling of the lyrics from Devendra Banhart’s wonderful song, I feel like a child. My son, Eric, shared it with me maybe six years ago, when he was about 19. I take that as a great message, and I love the way the song lays out the truth that sometimes we feel like a child, no matter our chronological age, and want to be taken care of. So, although in this chapter we are emphasizing the difficulty we adults have in letting go of our emerging adult children, and their heroic efforts to break away, we parents are not imagining our children’s difficulty in letting go and stepping up to take responsibility for their lives.
Well, some people try and treat me like a man.
Yeah, some people try and treat me like a man.
Well, I guess they just don’t understand
Yes, some people try and treat me like a man.
They think I know shit but that’s just it,
I’m a child.
Well, I need you to tell me what to wear,
Yeah, I need you to help me comb my hair,
Yeah, I need you to help me tie my shoes,
Yeah, I need you to come keep me amused.
From my cave to my grave I guess I’ll always be a child
And, I need you to sit me on your lap
And, I need you make me take my nap
could you first pull out a book and read me some of that
cause I need you to make me take my nap.
From sucking on my mama’s breast to when they lay my soul to rest,
I’m a child.