Small Doses of Adult Children

Heading to the airport I felt a catch and pain in my throat, realizing as I swallowed that the pain and catch in my heart were far greater.

Annie is heading to New York by way of Terminal C and Jet Blue today. From there she will catch a non stop JFK – Cairo flight. She is 26 and has traveled alone since she was 16 or 17. Even so, when I say goodbye to her I feel like Steve Martin in the character of Mr. Banks in the now classic movie, Father of the Bride. The part when his daughter says “I’m getting married!” and he looks at her and although his grown daughter is before him, all he sees is a 4-year-old saying in pre-school talk “Daddy, I’m getting mawwied!”

For me it’s “Goodbye mom!” from a capable 26-year old, but what I see is a 6-year-old with pigtails and blonde hair and I think “Are you crazy! You’re not going to Cairo alone! You’re six years old!” But before I say it, just like Steve Martin, I snap back to reality and it is two women saying goodbye to each other, not a child and an adult. The caveat is that one of those women is the mom and always will be.

What is it about adult children? When they are sitting at the dining room table waxing wise on all of life, and display body language that says “my way is better than your way, mom” you can’t wait until their bags are packed and they are headed out the door. But the minute they get out the door you dissolve into a million tears and have to pick yourself up with nostalgia and an enormous sense of loss, pack it into a box to be compartmentalized in your mind, and move forward putting towels and sheets in the laundry and restoring the room they inhabited back to a place of sterile emptiness.

In a 2006 article in the Boston Globe a mother likens the time when her children were all around her and she was the chauffeur, cook, comforter and priest all in one as a time when “I was the sun and my kids were the planets”. Clichés on roots, wings and more don’t resonate but her article really resonated. Here is an excerpt:

I was the sun and they were the planets. And there was life on those planets, whirling, non stop plans and parties and friends coming and going, and ideas and dreams and the phone ringing and doors slamming. And I got to beam down on them. To watch. To glow. And then they were gone, one after the other. “They’ll be back,” my husband said. And he was right. They came back. But he was wrong, too, because they came back for intervals — not for always, not planets anymore, making their predictable orbits, but unpredictable, like shooting stars.

My “shooting stars” are wonderful but they are stars with strong opinions. I have said for years that only so many opinionated adults can live cohesively under the same roof (unless of course we are talking about monks and nuns, but we aren’t) In that spirit I believe that small doses of adult children are true gifts and are indeed like “shooting stars”. To be able to have a great conversation about the mysteries of life, the Arab Spring, and the latest issue of the New Yorker is a joy.

I realize how intelligent and thoughtful they are and remember the signs we used to put around the house “Be a Critical Thinker” and “I would rather die of thirst than drink from the cup of mediocrity”  and “Seize the day, Pray for Grace from God’s hand” laughingly realizing that they must have sunk in. But my territorial instincts are strong and I am aware that there are certain boundaries I don’t want them to cross because it’s “my house” and with that there are points of butting heads and opinions. I understand why my mom’s dream house was a house big enough to house her children “one family at a time!”

My dose of adult children is over for a time and another goodbye is said. This one is a hard one – hard because of distance, hard because of unknowns, hard because I remember when she was little and I could kiss and hug away her tears, nothing was too big that kisses, hugs and tea wouldn’t cure. Cairo is a long way from Cambridge and but for a time, cyber hugs and comforting will have to satisfy.

13 thoughts on “Small Doses of Adult Children

  1. My mum is always a bit sad whenever she drops me off back at university after a weekend at home – my sister says she comes home and says gloomily “It’s not the same without Nic here!” even though I’m about to start my second year now! Poor mums.


  2. Marilyn–this is outstanding! Thank you. For us, while the kids were in college and there were patterns to their lives and to their visits back home, it was a bit easier to handle. But lately, I have been dealing with the “young adults” who are working on their own, living on their own, and making their own random schedules. They come home (some of them, not all!) and want to have things be on their own terms–it is not just a refuge from the stress of college, any more. I have finally given myself permission to feel RELIEVED when they leave!! The growing process from being a parent to becoming an “adult friend and mentor” is difficult and painful at time. But, because we love them, and because they are a part of us–DNA and what we instilled in them as children–we keep at it. We feel that sense of excitement when we see them after a long while, and we feel that sense of relief when then leave again–sometimes after just a short while. Who knew it would be so complex??


    1. So well put Susanna! I like your last statement/question best of all. Who knew it would be so complex? I think giving ourselves the permission to be relieved is perhaps the biggest thing of all. And giving ourselves permission to love, but not always like, our kids….:)


  3. What a beauty-full and meaning-full post, Marilyn — every word rang true and touched my heart. I was transported back to countless airport scenes, saying good-by to one of my grown children, and then returning home to that familiar ache of the empty place at the table, juxtaposed with my excitement for their unfolding adult lives. May all our ‘shooting stars’ be blessed, whether they be in Cairo, Nairobi, or Boston! And may we, who will always be their parents, be blessed too.


  4. Marilyn, this post moved me to tears. As you, I enjoyed my daughter’s childhood years. Now the essence of life has to be redefined which is bittersweet. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to watch the new adventures of now grown children.


    1. Petra – thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment, not only here but on other posts. It makes me feel as though you aren’t on the other side of the country. And it’s time to bring that grown adult daughter of yours to Boston for a visit!


  5. Dear Marilyn, You are such a loving mother and human being. Grace, faith and unconditional love all come together powerfully in our experiences of parenthood, don’t they? I really appreciate the image your post conveys that shooting stars are as much a part of the universe as orbiting planets. (On a personal level, I am very grateful for how those three aspects of my own spirit have grown, and how they have opened me to the world/God/unknown, where I feel the energy often is reciprocated–back and forth– in profound ways.)


    1. Nancy – your words are kind…I am amazed at what motherhood has shown me about my own weaknesses etc. But love what you said about grace faith and love coming together and a “relationship of reciprocation”.


  6. Oh, I can so relate! We dropped off our youngest yesterday in Los Angeles to begin grad school…..which will take her to Nairobi, Kenya for two years, living and working in a slum. (she leaves in January) A mix of emotions for us–so proud of her, and yet scared, too. We will miss her terribly! Thanks for writing this!


    1. Janet – thanks so much for this comment. When will she leave for Nairobi? As I went back and saw an empty bathroom counter that had exasperated me just days before I had to live out my blog post….never easy :)


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