No one told me about the “after” part of parenting. Well, maybe they told me and I didn’t hear or more likely, wasn’t listening, because I was too busy being a parent. I heard a lot about the sleep deprivation, the unconditional love, the terrible twos and the messes—so many messes.

But I don’t remember anyone warning me of what comes after all of that, when you’re no longer sleep deprived or covered in spit up or able to pee all by yourself. And to be honest, I am finding that the “after” is harder than all the rest.

I was never the mom in the school cafeteria, clinking coffee cups with the other parents on the first day of school, celebrating the start of the new school year. I was the mom weeping outside the classroom door—like a stalker—who was eventually gently but firmly guided to the exit by the principal. I relished summer vacation and was depressed at even the thought of my children returning to the school buildings in the fall.

Yes, I was exhausted, for probably 15 straight years. Yes, I wanted to run away from my children sometimes and was not above hiding in my closet with a candy bar, unwilling to share. But I also never felt like I could ever get enough of them. I carried them, played with them, read to them, volunteered in their classrooms and almost every field trip—not to mention every recital, game, graduation or event. To me, being needed and wanted by my children was my lifeblood and being a mom was the one thing I was doing pretty well.

They started to pull away as the teen years crept in, wanting to spend more time with friends, less patience for mom, less time—but they were still there, one foot out the door, but there, just the same. Through all of this, I knew it was coming. I didn’t love it, fought it a bit here and there, let my feelings be hurt and even lashed out a few times, like a toddler refusing a nap. But I knew in my rational brain, this part was coming and I adapted (somewhat) begrudgingly.

But when the first child left—the “after” part—to live with his friends, this—this I did not handle well. I’m not sure why my brain just never went to this “after ” place of what happens around 18 years old, probably to protect me somehow now that I think about it. In my mind’s eye, this part of parenting and them eventually growing up and going, had remained fuzzy and gray—no definition or expectations. A safety mechanism in my brain to keep me sane and oblivious to what was coming.

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My first encounter with the “after ” was late one afternoon when I came home from work and walked past my oldest son’s room, glancing in the direction on my way down the hall, and I found it empty, is one I will never forget. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and all my air was trapped in my chest. Tears sprung to my eyes and I pushed the door all the way open to verify it wasn’t a dream. I braced myself on one of the walls and covered my mouth as I heard a strange strangled sound bubble from my throat. I stood there in total shock and silence for what felt like years.

What’s crazy is I knew he was moving in with friends–soon–but “soon” to me lived in that fuzzy, gray area in my brain of denial and I think I really thought it would never happen. I couldn’t believe he wanted to go. I couldn’t believe he did. And it felt like the bubble around my little, wonderful family had a hole in it now and was hemorrhaging. I crawled into bed for three days and wept and slept and wept and slept. It was ridiculous, I know. But I could not bring myself to do anything else or function in the least. I do not like this “after .” I do not like it one bit.

With four wonderful children, I’ve gotten a bit less crazy with the initial “after ” but still struggle with the switch over. I find it very hard to find my new definition as a parent to adult children when they don’t need you the same way they did for so many years or hold you up on a pedestal or want to hold your hand. It honestly makes me sad and I know that is probably silly to so many who have had a much smoother transition.

I often feel like a fish out of water around them these days, trying to find my place, stay in my lane, not hover or worry and I hope one day, once they have all crossed over to the “after,” it won’t hurt like this anymore and I will be able to just take comfort in the years I did get to have them close, in my bubble. But for now, as my heart aches and my eyes fill with tears, I have to say that 18 years is just not enough.
Featured Photo Courtesy: Teresa Howes via Pexels.com