I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but it took me by surprise when it did. One evening, my son was at home hanging out with his friend and then a few minutes later they were gone. When I realized they had left, I was startled when my first thought was, bummer, I wish they were still here. I genuinely wanted them around. I wanted to hear them talking to each other and laughing. I wanted to talk to them and listen to their jokes. I wanted to joke with them too. I was shocked to realize that we had hit that parenting milestone – the one where we parents want to hang out with our kids more than they want to hang out with us. And I was legitimately didn’t know quite what to make of these feelings.
Sure, others had warned me of this. It’s almost become a parenting cliché at this point. But when it happened to me, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. I was surprised, a little sad, and oddly curious about this new stage.
There are plenty of silver linings to this phase of parenting. On that night when both of my kids were out with their friends, my husband and I were able to go out to dinner. We don’t need to worry about child care anymore and we can enjoy each other’s company without competing with our kids for attention.
And of course, there is the ultimate silver lining: an awareness that this is the goal of parenting, after all – to raise independent children who have a full and happy life of their own. This is all part of the process.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not unsettling and strange and kind of sad.
I remember hearing veteran parents talk about this stage of the parenting journey back when I was elbow deep in dirty diapers and bath time and praying they would sleep through the night. I literally couldn’t fathom feeling this way. Parenting was so all-consuming that I couldn’t imagine a day would come when I wouldn’t eagerly gobble up some kid-free me-time. But now? Well, I’ve got plenty of kid-free time and time spent with my kids is only going to get smaller over the next several years. There will be after-school jobs and sports practices and parties and dates, all vying for my kids’ time, taking them away from home and me.
Though it might sound like I’m complaining about it, this realization also feels deeply satisfying. I want them to have strong relationships independent of me. I want them to have their own big and full lives. But it’s just so dang weird crossing over into this stage. I don’t just love my kids, but I genuinely like being around them for who they are as people and not just because they are my children. Isn’t that amazing?!
Of course, it’s all bittersweet. Because even though this is the goal – for these little birdies to leave the nest – and this is part of that process, it’s hard not to look ahead at the next several years with a sense of impending dread. We have less than four years until my oldest son graduates high school. He’ll likely move out shortly thereafter, maybe even move far away. It’s hard to think about that without feeling a chest-tightening panic. But then I remember something a younger colleague once said to me. She said she actually spent more time with her parents in her 20s than in her teens, even though they were no longer living in the same house. She said the relationship shifted to one of parent-child to one of friends. Of course, every situation is different but when I start to feel weepy and anxious about how the scales have tipped and my kids will continue pulling away from me, I think about this and hope for the best.
One thing is clear though: parenting is filled with both/ands. And this new phase is no different. It is both devastating and amazing to realize that you want to be around your child more than they want to be around you. It is both terrifying and satisfying to realize that your child is becoming independent and self-sufficient. It is bitter and sweet to realize that you just can’t get enough of this amazing person your child is becoming but they aren’t yours to keep and you have to eventually let them go.
I guess all we can do is try to enjoy every wild and crazy phase – including this one, when the dynamic shifts and parenting changes forever.