Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Letting Go

Becky, my ex-wife, and I have been divorced nearly fifteen years. During all of that time we have shared joint custody of our daughter. Meagan lives for a time with Jill, Linley and me, and then with her mom, and back again. Our homes are less than five miles apart. Becky and I talk on the phone or email one another often, negotiating agreements about extending new privileges to our daughter who has, chronologically at least, reached adulthood.

As Meagan prepared to leave home for college in the late summer of 2008, it was a time for Becky and me to come to terms with all that changes when your child leaves home. For one of us, dealing with those changes had proven been a little more difficult than for the other.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my relationship with Meagan has changed over the years, but so too has her relationship with her mother. Together they still enjoy lengthy and enthusiastic conversations about boys, girlfriend spats, celebrity news, or the latest reality television show. They still shop for hours, have their hair and nails done side by side in some salon, and get dressed up to impress when going out on the town for dinner and a movie. And for a while, it was her mother who Meagan turned to for consolation, protection and understanding. As a woman, as a mom, it was Becky who could comprehend what I could not, at least not until I began to enjoy the interpretive support and insight of Jill.

But back to the change in Meagan and he mother’s relationship. I think it was I who was better prepared for Meagan’s inevitable departure. In the last several months before she established her new residence in a college dorm, I began to slowly release the parental reigns. I gave my daughter more and more autonomy, responsibility and discretion, making sure, I believed, she could handle unbridled freedom before she was gone and then I too far away to rush in and rescue her.

Her mother, on the other hand, tightened her grip on the reigns, filled with fear that her daughter, on the verge of leaping from the nest, may not be able to fly. A role reversal of sorts took place as Meagan began to call me for suggestions on how to deal with her mother, a mom who had taken to tearfully professing, “I’m not ready for you to leave!”

Soon my conversations with Becky took the shape of me encouraging her to let go, to give our daughter room to breathe. She listened and agreed to at least try, yet I had my doubts about her willingness and ability to follow through with my advice. Becky had been a mother for eighteen years by then; I suppose it isn’t easy, when the time comes, for a woman to change how she conducts herself in that role. I know because I’ve had to remind Jill time and time again, often with Linley’s wink-wink and a nudge, that her daughter is now fourteen years old, not four.

You see, it was me who finally got Jill to stop laying out her daughter’s clothes, allow her child to walk through the neighborhood unaccompanied by an adult, and use a steak knife.

The day Meagan was to check into her dorm finally arrived and we all pitched in to help her move. Becky, Jill, Meagan, Linley and I carried box after box of clothing, bedding, school supplies and decorating accessories into the tiny room that was to be Meagan’s new home for the next ten months. While I assembled furniture the women unpacked and debated the perfect placement of everything – photos on the shelf over the desk, the refrigerator in that corner, handbags and shoes in this cabinet, and so on. All the while I watched for tears, not knowing who would cry first, but certain someone would before the day was over.

A few hours later, and surprisingly after not a single stress fueled disagreement, we broke for lunch. Meagan’s new roommate and her family joined us and soon we parents were exchanging stories across the table about our children, much to the embarrassment of the two college freshmen. Amid the laughter, I noticed the red blotches appearing on Becky’s neck, her telltale sign that she is choking back an emotion. Here they come, I thought. But, surprise me again, she held herself together and didn’t shed a tear.

When the meal was finished we rose to return to the dorm where we were to say our farewells. Except by then, I suppose, the anticipated pain of the approaching departure had become too much for Becky. She suddenly announced she was leaving right then for home. Jill and I said our goodbyes and waited in the car while Meagan and her mother stood on the sidewalk chatting a bit. They embraced a lingering embrace, Meagan smiling wide and Becky turning all the more red. They separated, Meagan jumped in the car with us and Becky walked hastily toward her own, giving only a brief wave before she disappeared inside and drove away.

Back in the dorm Meagan gave the rest of us hugs and kisses and we parted in good cheer. Meagan would spend the rest of the day making new friends and Jill, Linley and I drove home. On the way Linley entertained us with her daydreams of freedom and independence when leaving home for college four years hence. Jill scolded her for her foolishness (I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Linley roll her eyes) and then remarked how surprised she was that Becky had held back her tears. It was then when Linley made me promise to “train” her mother in the same way as I had done with Becky.

I didn’t tell them at the time and hadn’t until now, that I knew my daughter’s mother would cry her eyes out when she was alone. And indeed, she did, all the way home.

I also didn’t tell Linley I doubted my ability to help Jill to let go when the time came. I'll explain to her later that some things are more difficult than others, and some just can’t be done.

1 comment:

Shionge said...

Hiya Gregory :D Greetings from Singapore and I must say that as a Mother myself it is and would certainly be tough to see our little girl leave our home.

I noticed that this is very much an American culture whereby kids leave for college at around 17-18? Here, children don't leave till they get married so I supposed the children in America matured faster than our kids here.

My daughter (14 years) went on a school trip to Australia last June for only ten days and I cried when we sent her off at the airport...I know I was foolish :')

Anyway, I've enjoyed your post and I wish her well as she embraced another phase of life in college :D