I Feel Like I Just Lost the Best Job I Ever Had (but I didn't)
Are any of you doing that bitter sweet dance of launching your son or daughter off to college - or some other transition – this summer or fall? It invites so much excitement and optimism, as strengths and competencies continue to reveal themselves in new ways. Looking forward, there is this great opportunity for growth and moving beyond what is comfortable and known. New adventures and new risks abound (for them and us). This is also a time which often reinforces that we have done well preparing our young adults to do whatever it is they have chosen to do next, despite moments of uncertainty along the way.
So onward! Independently, bravely, capably. Without us. Right?
Well, sort of. Launching is what we long ready our children for, but it may not be without mixed feelings. As one mom recently put it, despite being delighted about her daughter’s next transition, “I feel like I just lost the best job I ever had.” That resonated for me. I am thrilled for my children to be pursuing what they had hoped to be perusing. It’s as it should be. I’m also excited for the changes that it may usher in for my husband and I. But I love parenting. I’ve been doing it for a long time – and it’s my most familiar and gratifying role.
Typically, launching is thought about developmentally as the stage where young adults separate and individuate from their parents. Differentiate. My training in family therapy gave me another way to think about this, though, which I find a lot more satisfying: The focus is on reaffiliation. As our children move towards greater independence and new transitions, we serve them best not by separating, but by renegotiating or redefining what our relationship will look like going forward. This mindset embraces fluidity, and finding new ways to connect as our children – and our relationship with them – evolve.
Reaffiliation is the way we adjust our parenting roles as kids become more competent. When we move from hands on teacher to close collaborator to trusted adviser. It reinforces our faith in their abilities to master new challenges, or recover successfully when they don’t quite manage. It’s constantly adapting to their emerging strengths and autonomy. Reaffiliation does not signal distance - or being needed any less as a parent - but it is about parenting and reconnecting in new ways. We still have our jobs; they will just look a little different than they have in the past.
For a lot of parents this is a time of mixed feelings. Optimism and uncertainly. Excitement and apprehension. Joy and sadness. Gratitude. Even loss. There is room for all of it and there is no right way or wrong way to feel about it. This is the end of some growing up years that were extraordinary. The next chapters will look different. Still good, presumably, but different. And that’s usually hard.
So parents, be gentle with yourselves and hold on to reaffiliation as a touchstone as you navigate the next stages. And to those of you about to launch, be gentle with us. If we are hovering a little more around the edges of your activities and your conversations, pressing for a little more family time, it’s only because we can’t help being aware that this time bookmarks the passing of your childhood and a parenting role we cherished.