Letting Go in Parenthood
By: Dana Donahue, LCSW, PMH-C
Months ago, I was faced with what felt like my greatest parenting challenge thus far…sending my first-born child away to college. The swirl of emotions was significant, and memories triggered were vast. I was plagued with nagging questions all centering around whether I had properly prepared my son to embrace adulthood and take of himself without me.
So, I did what I thought every good parent should do…I dove into obsessing about what he needed to pack for school. My son has never been materialistic or cared about the color of his bedroom, but I dove into looking for the perfect bedding combination to ensure he would feel comfortable and ultimately cared for. He tolerated my questions, lists and planning, and eventually moved into his dorm without hesitation. And yet, I found myself frustrated that he didn’t care about the process or my efforts to show that I love him. If this didn’t matter, then had I done enough or been a good enough parent?
As if people were able to read my mind, my inbox and media feed were suddenly flooded with articles about the concept of “letting go” when sending your kids off to college. As I sat and contemplated what this meant to me (and struggled mercilessly to get the Frozen theme song out of my head), I realized that this concept doesn’t just hold true to the eventual launching of our children into adulthood, but it is something I have been grappling with since the day they were born.
Parenthood is built on a series of events starting from conception into the present moment where one has to continuously redefine expectations, take on new roles, and show up in life differently depending on what others need from us at any given stage. Each stage of parenthood tasks us with exploring our values, uncovering our strengths and finding the best support system to help us succeed.
As my children have grown older, I have had to let go of my ideas about what they need or want and learn to listen more as they define life on their own terms. I have had to let go of how I want them to dress and learn to embrace their own sense of style. I have had to let go of the idea of having family game nights and learn to embrace new activities that everyone enjoys doing. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, child, or comforter set that determine our ultimate success in life. When we strive to meet rigid expectations of ourselves or expect other people or life events to do the same, we are often fraught with disappointment, shame. and worry. Learning to forgive our mistakes, enjoy moments as they occur, and trusts that we are the best parent for our children are vital parts of the parenthood journey.
Letting go is hard and messy. There is no easy way to grieve the loss of unmet expectations or gracefully encourage your child’s autonomy but learning to acknowledge the challenging feelings and tolerate the discomfort will allow you to celebrate the gifts that your children truly are.