When Your Kid’s Life Becomes Their Own

by Melissa T. Shultz
Originally Published: 
Two boys running through orchard while holding hands
18 Aug 2011, USA --- Caucasian boys running in orchard --- Image by © Mark Edward Atkinson/Tracey Lee/Blend Images/Corbis

Change is in the air. We’ve celebrated the holidays together for 21 years, but with two kids in college, traditions that have been givens are givens no more.

It’s a gradual process, this change. From college applications to move-in day their freshman year, you’re so focused on the logistics of it all, you may not notice the shift. Then the school year begins and they’re not around to tell you their adventures — at least not the way they once did, when you all shared the place you call home. That’s when you start to feel it — how their new life is not only separate from yours, but belongs to them, for better or for worse. You go through withdrawal, certain you’ll never adjust to this new stage of parenting. But soon, it’s the new normal, and your relationship is redefined.

While I was making Thanksgiving dinner and muttering about how many steps there were in a particular recipe, I realized that from this season forward, all bets were off as to whether my college-age sons would be returning home for future holidays. Finances aside, they are officially old enough to choose not only whether they want to celebrate them, but where, and with whom. I’m no different than any parent — I hope my kids find lasting love, friendships and success in whatever way they define it. But I also know the truth — that along with these new relationships come new family members, and new family members mean choices will have to be made about where to spend the holidays.

Several years ago, we Skyped our son when he turned 19 and watched from half a country away as he opened his gifts in his college-dorm room. It was the first time we hadn’t been together for his birthday, and I wanted to see his face — to be “there,” to be part of his day, a day that made us the family we’ve become. After all, my husband and I were around, 19 years before, when he was born. Family and friends heard the news about how our baby boy had arrived, how I had become a mother and my husband a father. We received letters of congratulations, balloons, flowers. And although it was his life that officially began that day, in a sense ours did too.

Then along came his brother. And we were a family of four. On the day he was born I can tell you everything that happened as if it were just yesterday, and I think of it all still, on subsequent birthdays. I can’t help but not. It was literally a life-changing moment when we were all forever connected and bound by love. Their birthdays were our joint celebrations — a time to recall the miracle of their coming into this world. But as I’m now just fully understanding, even though my role as a parent is to nurture and protect, and even though my kids feel like mine because they are, they were never really mine completely. They were always their own. They’re yours but they’re not, and that’s not an easy thing for parents to come to terms with.

And so now it’s the holidays and I want to make the most of this time we have together. We are four individuals who make up a family, a family created by two parents and their parents before them, and so on, and so on … and the only thing that will really keep us together for future holidays is the effort we put into making them happen. It’s not a given anymore that we will celebrate them under one roof. Now it’s a choice, and odds are, as they make their way through the world and forge new relationships, it’s going to get complicated. But that’s what happens when our job is largely done. It’s a bittersweet sense of accomplishment.

That recipe was for lemon cake, btw, and we all agreed, it was delicious.

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