This Dear Parents letter is for those with children taking their first steps to independence – embarking on tertiary education. EMCC Counsellor Sapna Mathews shares advice and tips as a counsellor, and as a mother going through the same experience.
You have finally reached that coveted milestone of having your child take their first step towards independence, namely, to receive higher education at a tertiary institution before they begin their working life. Some of your children may even be moving out to stay in a hostel, and others to leave the country to attend university overseas.
This milestone is bittersweet – it’s your first taste of what life would be like without them but also the realisation that you must have done some things right as a parent to have your child reach this milestone. So do give yourself a hug and a pat on the back for getting to this point.
I thought it might be helpful to give you an idea of what to expect, not just from a counsellor’s point of view, but also from a fellow mum who is going through it as well.
Let me start off by saying, it’s going to be hard. We all saw the umbilical cord cut that day in hospital when they were born. But many of us are discovering now that there was another umbilical cord, an invisible one, still attached all these years. And somehow this time round, I can actually feel the pain as it’s being severed.
Letting them learn
On the practical front, you are probably considering the many decisions and administrative tasks your child may need your help with. Signing up for orientation programmes, module selection, hostel applications, and if they are going overseas – bank account creation, flight bookings, accommodation, packing, medications, currency exchange etc.
How much should you sort out for the child and how much should he / she figure out on their own?
I would encourage you to let them learn. Resist the urge to tell them what to do. Learn to trust your child’s ability. The more you let go, the more they will take on being responsible for themselves.
Letting go emotionally
On the emotional front, I’m also learning to let go. I do believe that the more tightly we hold on, the more they are likely to fight us for their freedom. The more we try to hold on to the controls, the more their wings will not be ready for their solo flight.
I know this on a cognitive level but how can I not worry? After all, this is the guy who keeps his IC in the loose pockets of his khaki pants. The same guy who realised on the day of his exam, that it was at 11am instead of 2pm, and just about made it to the exam hall on time. So yes, I worry. Did he remember to eat? Is she back after the late-night partying with friends? Will he find good friends? Will she be able to navigate the many tasks a new course of study will entail?
A parent’s instinct is to worry about their children. You have protected them for all these years. You won’t be able to suddenly just stop worrying. But try to think about it differently.
They may not text and call as often as we would like them to. But this may be a good thing. Too much of reconnecting with home may make the homesickness worse and delay their settling in and adaptation to their new environment and routines.
No news could mean good news. It could mean they are enjoying themselves with new-found friends or working hard on their assignments.
Dealing with “Boomerang”
Sometimes there are big bumps on the road, which make them want to give up and come back home. In this resting period called the “boomerang”, love them anyway. They are perhaps going through a crisis, a big dip in their self-confidence and need your patient loving presence as they figure out this event.
This period is difficult for parents because there may be disappointment with the child’s failure to cope with the first steps to launch into independence. It might take all the firmness, love, acceptance, adaptability, negotiating skills that you have gathered over the years. It could begin with an honest dialogue regarding timelines (how long will this boomerang period be), values and beliefs (some rules are set with some flexibility), responsibilities (chores, contributions to household expenditure, courtesies) and getting professional help if despite trying, your child seems to be falling deeper down a spiral.
Taking care of yourself
An empty nest can feel scary. A proactive thing to do is to prepare oneself for the vacuum.
Though cliched, a point that can’t be reiterated enough is “keep yourself busy”. Reconnect with friends, pursue your hobbies and passions, find new avenues to channel your nurturing energies. Find a charity or volunteer area to contribute.
Do also take care of yourself and your spouse. Many parents face this milestone along with other transitions happening in their lives. Like retirement, menopause, or an elderly parent who now needs care etc. These changes can add to your stress and anxiety levels.
Allow yourself to feel sad and grieve over the changes that are taking place. This experience is normal but won’t last long as you adjust to your new role.
Assure yourself that your parenting is not done, not just yet. It has just moved to a less intense zone. They will still need you, albeit much less. Like when there is not enough money, when they are unsure of a decision they need to take, or when they want to vent about how horrible life is.
Allow yourself and your spouse time and space to transition into this new stage. Everyone grieves differently and at a different pace. When it gets overwhelming, do seek professional help.
Last but not the least, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for the times you feel you messed up or didn’t do enough in your parenting. We have all been there and know that the guilt and regret can feel overwhelming. Know that you did your best with the knowledge and ability you had at that time. You did good. You did your job, mom. You fulfilled your role, dad.