Saying Goodbye: The University drop-off
I am dreading dropping my eldest son at University this weekend. I can’t quite get my head around it. Firstly, how has 18 years passed so quickly? Secondly, how do I drop him without burdening him with my emotions? I want him to remember this day without images of a tear-streamed mother putting a damper on the excitement of his next chapter. I also don’t want to ignore the specialness of this moment and how proud I am to see the man he has blossomed into.
These mixed-up feelings are all too familiar. Surely, I should have gotten used to the dilemmas of parenthood by now? But I have come to realise it doesn’t necessarily get easier to know what to hide and what to reveal. When to hold on, when to let go. How to support your child in their vulnerable moments, when these moments are often your most vulnerable too.
I should have all the answers. After-all, I’m a clinical psychologist who has been working with children in mental health services for over two decades. But the last 18 years with my own three kids has taught me I don’t, and maybe that’s a good thing.
Learning to let my kids fail, feel pain, solve their own problems, do things their way and become their own person has been a huge challenge. Firstly, I know what can go wrong, and secondly, I have all this knowledge, which although helpful becomes difficult to apply when my own emotions are involved.
My three children are all so different and as such, something that works for one, doesn’t work for another. My sons prefer a low-key approach, my daughter is high-drama and if I respond calmly to situations or her frustrations, it’s as if she feels I do not care. My calmness is reassuring to her brothers, but to her, it feels like I am not bothered. It’s like she needs me to have a big reaction to know I get it. I don’t want to go straight to a big reaction, it’s not my style! I can sometimes feel myself shutting down as she gets more irate, this often ends up with her behaving more extremely to get the reaction she is looking for. Finally, I snap and explode. She seems immediately content. I move to feeling the agony of saying something I wish I hadn’t. Hating myself for feeling so out of control, so angry.
Rupture and repair. The number of times I have spoken about this with families I work with. It is such an important part of being a parent of building relationships – being able to own the bits where you have got it wrong, or maybe made things worse - finding resolution and opportunities for healing from hurt.
The number of times I have hoovered outside my children’s bedroom doors, bracing myself for owning my bits, acknowledging my weaknesses and offering a chance to think together about what we could do differently next time. Saying sorry isn’t easy. Talking about the tough stuff, even harder. But it is often the conversations I have had with my children following a disastrous day out or a disagreement that have given us the chance to share our perspectives and learn why each other's emotions are important. To grow and learn about each other, and what we care about.
This realisation was never more poignant than five years ago when my then nine-year-old daughter heard the news that her dad was having a baby with his partner. She was initially really excited. Having two brothers, she began to consider life with a baby sister and not being the only girl in the family. Around a week after receiving the news, I found her crying in bed. I crept in beside her in the dark and lay with her. “What’s up?” I asked. She said it was about the new baby between sobs. She didn’t want her dad to have a new baby. She was scared that it would mean he would love her less, that she would stop being so special to him. She asked, was it possible she might see Dad less, especially as the new baby would be with him all of the time? For me, these had been my own fears when I heard the news, so it took a lot of internal resource to put aside how I was feeling, and instead focus on what my daughter needed in that moment. I couldn’t take away this pain, I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t struggle with some of the things she was starting to worry about. I wanted to be able to offer all the solutions, tell her it would be fine, not to be silly. I’d talk to her dad and make sure this didn’t happen. But I didn’t. I lay there, bearing the pain (which was crushing me too), staying calm and loving, sitting with it so she didn’t need to feel afraid or ashamed of her feelings. Honouring her world, her experience. For a long time, I lay with her in the dark, our arms touching, hearing her cry and feeling her rapid breathing; my quiet presence eventually soothed her.
This moment was hard for me, I was also in emotional pain. But I was able to comfort my daughter by sitting with her feelings and showing my care for her in my body language and presence. I was honest about the fact that I couldn’t solve the problem or take away the pain; that I didn’t have all the answers. In doing this, I supported my daughter to feel that despite so much uncertainty, her feelings were understandable and bearable. After sitting with this pain, we were able to think together about what her feelings might be telling her, which bits to listen to and which to challenge. We worked out together that her feelings were telling her being loved by her dad is one of the most important things for her. That the new baby was making her feel scared that her dad’s love might run out or go just to the new baby. We could then think about whether these thoughts were accurate predictions based on her past experiences (thoughts are not facts). When we established that dad had not loved her any less following the birth of her baby brother who was now five, we could then explore how she could let her dad know this was her worry, so he did not unintentionally reinforce this fear. Earlier on, she had talked about not seeing him that weekend. Following our talk, we were able to work out that this course of action was based on fear, rather than helping her feel loved by her dad. She recognised she might need more quality time with him for a while, not less.
I often think back to this moment in my daughter’s bed when seeing my children struggle or indeed find myself in emotional pain. It reminds me that often our children (and ourselves) do better if we do not rush them away from their feelings. That the overwhelming urge to solve the problem, provide the answer or just simply try to take the pain away – can prevent them/us make sense of the challenges they/we are facing and doing the very things that will help overcome the pain in the longer term.