Unparenting: How to Let Go
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When your kid leaves the nest
You wake up before the alarm goes off and realize the living room is quiet and neat. There is no backpack or jacket dumped on the floor, no laundry molting under the couch, no bowls caked with three-day-old dried cereal in the sink.
You pinch yourself . . . are you dreaming? Is it a nightmare or a happy dream? Then you remember—your child is no longer in high school, and you, single mom, are now just plain solo.
Wait—are you crying? I’m having a bit of a moment myself. Let’s give ourselves a good 15 minutes to let everything sink in. Then, let’s think about this. How great is this?
There’s no need to plan dinner or even sit down and eat it properly, and you don’t have to stay up late to make sure your child gets home safe. And yet, you’ve been parenting alone and doing it all for such a long time that you find yourself a bit confused. You’re having a Peggy Lee moment, but really, though, you should be dancing.
Remember when your kid told you to stop reminding her to brush her teeth? Even though sometimes you still checked to see if the toothbrush was wet, you kept your mouth shut . . . most of the time.
This is kind of the same thing. You no longer need to care if your kid showers, and you won’t have to go to the lost and found to retrieve that scarf.
Of course, you are still a mom! Did you stop being a mom when you tossed out the diaper bag? You simply need to adjust your focus again.
Keep in mind, it’s a process. Just as learning to live with a teenager makes you yearn for the days of tantrums over sippy cups, watching your kid become an adult feels like a hairpin curve. Even though many of us have children heading off to college, we’re the ones who need schooling in letting go and relaxing those fierce mama bear claws. It’s time to embrace a new set of skills. Let’s give it a name: unparenting, or the art of parenting while parenting less.
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Actually, it feels like standing on one foot while frosting a cake—kind of ridiculous. But you’re a Solo Mom! You can handle it, right?
Frankly, unparenting skills are not going to blossom overnight. After all, it took you almost 20 years to develop the parenting ones. You’re going to find yourself missing those snuggles (which, if we are honest, probably haven’t occurred in a decade) or heading into his room to check on him when you find yourself awake at 4:00 a.m. Careful! Now that he’s not at home, giving in to the Solo Mom urges to be as thorough as a nuclear parent may get you temporarily blocked or ignored. Yes, he can do that now. It’s as painful as those slamming doors and screaming fights of just a moment ago.
So, internalize that eye roll. Anything you are thinking of doing, imagine your child standing before you and giving you that look. If you are like me, this will strike fear into your soul, which means:
No texting to ask if his plane has landed. That’s what flight statuses are for. And you can check it every 20 minutes, just for fun!
No kisses on Facebook or comments about how quiet the house is. Stalking on all social media, however, is perfectly OK. Don’t forget Snapchat! It all disappears as quickly as her childhood.
No phone tracker. Assume everything is going well until informed otherwise. This may require some deep-breathing exercises.
No phone calls when you have a moment. Let her call you. She will call, even if it’s just to tell you to mail her things she forgot at home or how that class on food and history is already full.
No helping. You can’t call the dean and try to get your kid into that class. You can’t suggest that since he took three years of Spanish in high school, he should aim higher. In fact, you can’t check grades unless he gives you permission. It’s the law.
And by the way, if you’re one of those people who spent your child’s senior year saying, “We are applying to . . . ” now is the time to let go. Don’t ask to see the syllabus. Don’t audit the online lectures. Take a cooking class or join a book club instead.
In short, to cite the incisive Anna Stewart, no hovering. This is especially true for single moms, since we can hover for two parents at once. As she ably points out, you do your child a disservice by not letting her help herself. She may be your baby, but she is also an adult exploring a world that will belong to her.
So what can you do? How can you go from 80 miles per hour to a gridlock pace?
Set up FaceTime chats. Fair warning, they’re disappointing. You get a wave from the roommate and some desultory conversation, which is often interrupted. My daughter smiled only for whomever walked into her room while she was chatting with me. Blow some kisses and call a friend. It’s happy hour somewhere!
Gift packages are sweet and mostly for you. I once sent a ton of Halloween candy and was snarkily reprimanded for the sugar overload—but sending them makes you feel great!
Plan activities for the holidays. I know they are months away, but what the heck. You might even get in a snuggle or two when he is home.
After all, you’re still Mom. And you always will be.
Margot Kessler, a screen and television writer living in Los Angeles, is the sporadically witty Solo Mom of two lovely daughters.
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