Need advice on how to cope with sadness and anxiety every time our youngest son returns to college after being home on break. He’s a junior now but it’s not getting easier for me. Feel depressed and miss him. He attends out of state 8 hours away from us here in California. I’m proud he’s following his dreams of becoming a commercial airline pilot. He’s the baby of the family other children went to college in California. Thank you.
If there were some magical way for an advice column to feel like a hug, you’d feel my arms around you.
It doesn’t surprise me that having sent your baby off to college, you are feeling anxious and sad. This is totally normal for the size of the change his adulthood means in your life. It’s like you’ve lost the job you loved and were great at, and are thinking, “I don’t want a new job! I loved parenting at close range! Now I have to learn a whole new job of parenting adults? Aaaack!!!”
Losing that job is, well, a loss. And so there is grief. Your son is alive and well, but the little sweetie you nurtured for years is gone. You’re still a parent, but you’ve lost your sense of familiarity. You may be grieving all of the connection and closeness with your son. You may also be grieving the loss of the ease you’ve enjoyed in knowing the way parenting should feel and what your role was when your kids were younger. And because grief is a process, there is no correct amount of time it takes to move through it.
You haven’t truly been able to move past it because you haven’t fully arrived at a comfortable new place. Every time he’s home on break, you delight in reprising your at-close-range parenting — and then he leaves, and you begin to grieve anew.
The fact that it isn’t getting easier is what seems to be troublesome. Believe it or not, your distress is a good sign. If you were all “good riddance, dude!” you would either be a heartless mama (which clearly you’re not!) or the grief would be buried so deep you would have no way to grow through it.
Your desire for advice on how to cope tells me you are ready to move forward. You’re not satisfied with tolerating the sadness and anxiety. It’s like you’ve had your hand on a hot stove and you’ve arrived at the moment when you’re saying “OUCH! I don’t want to hurt anymore.” So now it’s time to move your hand from the hot stove and find a new place to put it that doesn’t hurt so much.
When your heart has been filled with the love of a child and now they’re off living their life away from you, all that love feels like it has nowhere to go. But it does! All of that love is meant for you! So now you can focus on loving yourself, being kind and generous to yourself, and nurturing the sweet girl inside you just as you nurtured your children. All the love and attention and creative energy that’s been moving from you to your children can now flow to you. That beautiful parenting is now the gift you give to yourself.
Consider how you helped your kids feel better when they felt bad. Did talking about it soothe them? Find someone who loves and cares about you to talk about your feelings with. Did distracting your kids help them through things that felt bad? Find ways to distract yourself and focus on things that feel more pleasing. The idea here is that the slightly better feeling you have will allow you to build some momentum towards feeling even better.
I’ve often made the mistake of trying to move from depressed to happy in one swift motion. It never works. But I’ve found that moving from depressed to feeling discouraged or disappointed is easier. I focus on the things in the present moment that feel good. I appreciate the softness of my socks. I appreciate the blue sky. I let myself delight in the breeze. I remind myself that in this moment, all is well.
The attention I give to these things and the good feelings I have about them loosens me up enough to see rays of light shining through the darkness. For you, that may mean appreciating what a wonderful son you have and how terrific his life is becoming. You can think about how much fun and pride you’ll feel when you see him in his pilot’s uniform the first time. You can think about how nice and soft your socks feel.
Soon you will feel disappointed that he’s not with you, which is better than the full darkness and stagnation of depression. And you might feel discouraged that you’re not entirely sure what you want to do with all that love and creative energy flowing in your own direction. But once you start to move towards feeling better, ideas will come. Comfort will come. Grief will lessen.
And also remember that your parenting is not over. Our children continually look to us as they enter life stages we have already been through. I look to my 88-year-old mother to learn how to be 88. And I know my kids are looking at me to learn something about how they can live their own adult lives.
Some day your children will have children and they will look to you and to their memories of your growth when they left home. They’ll look to you for how to grieve loss and get happy. You will be a fantastic role model for them being a grown-up who is living a happy life.