Thursday, June 16, 2016

How to Say Goodbye to Your Child** **(Continued Absence Not Guaranteed)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Last week was a big week for saying goodbye to the children here in Southern Maine. Youngest left for a two-week intensive language course at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, where she'll be studying Standard Arabic. No, I'm not sure why. It's the first time she's flown unaccompanied, and although she goes to boarding school, it's certainly the first time she's been housed at a university. Also her first time in flyover country America's Heartland.

The Boy, whom some of you may remember went off to college, came back after a year and a half, and spent a year working while he Got His Head Together, decided his head belonged in a "Dixie cup," otherwise known as a United States Navy sailor's cap. He shipped out to Naval Station Great Lakes (also in Illinois) last week, and if after he passes Basic, he'll be at the Defense Language Institute in California. Where chances are good he also will be learning Standard Arabic.

I don't know, I'm envisioning them as a brother-sister team of super spies, maybe?

Two farewells in one week made me think of the many, many times we've said goodbye to the kids over the years. (We keep saying it because so far, they keep coming back.) I'm going to share the benefit of my experience, dear Readers, with you, so you'll know what to expect at any age (up to 23, that's as far as we've gotten at this point.)

1. Daycare/Preschool. Peel child off your body, thrusting her towards Miss Ashley and Miss Taylor, the teachers. In a bright, cheery voice, tell her how much FUN she's going to have today. Flee up the hall with her screams trailing behind you.

Sit in your driver's seat and sob for five minutes.

Call after you get to the office to find out how she is, only to be told she started smiling and playing with the other toddlers twenty-five seconds after you left the room.

2. First Day of Kindergarten. Put him in his adorable new pants and shirt and take thirty pictures of him at the breakfast table, getting into the car, getting out of the car, walking through the school doors, exploring the room, etc. He is excited and distracted and barely notices when you say, "Goodbye! See you this afternoon!"

Sit in your driver's seat and sob for five minutes.

3. Second Day of Kindergarten. Kiss him goodbye before the bus comes, then encourage him up the steps. Introduce yourself to the driver, trying to make her like you because for God's sake, you're entrusting your tiny child to her and you saw that movie where all the kids die in a bus accident in Canada.  When the door closes and the bus pulls away, realize that from now on part of your child's life will always be unknown to you.

Go inside and stare into your coffee for five minutes.

5. First overnight stay at Grammy and Grampy's.  Go over the List of Dos and Don'ts  at Grammy's House. ("Do always ask to be excused from the table. Don't wear shoes inside on Grammy's wall-to-wall off-white carpet.") Remind children not to say anything about the hair in Grampy's nose.

If they're flying, take them to the gate, give them lots of hugs and kisses, hand them over to the flight attendant. Go home and pray.

If you're dropping them off, ease up on the hugs and kisses. You don't want Grammy to think you don't trust her, do you? Go home and pray.

6. Summer Camp (First Year). Hold her hand while you complete the registration. Assure her she's going to love camp. Tote three pillows, sheets, blankets, a quilt, a sleeping bag, a suitcase of clothing and a sack full of stuffed animals up to her cabin. Make introductions between the rest of the girls, who are staring at each other wide-eyed. "What's your name? Emily? Emily, this is Sarah. Sarah, this is Emily."

Make her bunk, unpack her clothes, set up the stuffies against the pillows and hold her hand as she walks back to the car with you. Assure her that if she still wants to go home after twenty-four hours, she can tell the camp director, and you'll drive up to get her.

Sit in your driver's seat and sob for three minutes. Stop when you realize if you get going, you and your spouse can make it to a real grown-up restaurant (one without paper placemats and crayons) in time for dinner.

7. Summer Camp (Every Year Thereafter) Haul the pillows, sheets, blankets, quilts, sleeping bags, stuffies and suitcase up to the cabin, along with face and hair treatments, her archery equipment, cake mix and frosting for a birthday cake, and every book in the latest hot YA series (all the other girls in her cabin will have the exact same books.) She will not help you with this, as she's too busy shrieking and hugging friends.

Give her a heartfelt hug at the car and watch as she dances off toward the lake with one of her cabin mates for her swimming assessment test.

Head for that restaurant. You deserve a drink.

8. First Day of High School.  Don't mention his hair, or his clothes, or his backpack. Do not helpfully point out a zit on his nose and don't ask him if he's got all his recommended school supplies in his bag (he doesn't.) In fact, it's best if you don't say anything.

When he's not looking, grab him for a quick hug and kiss. Watch through the window as he sprints toward the bus (don't let him see you!)

Wonder if maybe boarding school would make dealing with your moody, hormonal teen easier. (No, it won't.)

9. Moving In Day at College. This is the big one. It's first day of summer camp, first day of high school, and first day of the rest of your life, all rolled into one. Spend two hours lugging books, lamps, a printer, a rug, hangars, a mirror, bedding, speakers, laundry detergent, personal hygiene supplies and enough clothing for a round-the-world cruise up three flights of stairs. (Yes, there's an elevator, but every other parent is trying to get on it at the same time.)

There will be scheduled activities to which you can go if you didn't forget something vital and have to make a last-minute run to WalMart. Try and have a meal with your child. Go to the school bookstore and buy her an overpriced sweatshirt and a back-window sticker for your car.

Hug and kiss her in the parking lot. Assure her you won't call until she contacts you first. Watch her dance away across the library lawn into her future.

Sit in your driver's seat and sob for ten minutes.

10. Every Other Year of College. Since you've discovered your child's future includes a whole lot of time spent in your house, borrowing your car, and eating your food, this goodbye process is best described by the theme song to the classic western, Rawhide: Head em' up, Move 'em on! Move 'em on, Head em' up! Rawhide!

Kiss, kiss, bye-bye, see you Parent's weekend. You and your spouse could stop at a real grown-up restaurant, but college tuition means you can't afford to eat out.

11. Leaving for Basic Training/OCS. Ruffle his hair. Tell him you're proud of him. Do not ask about taking along his special hypoallergenic body wash. Do not ask what's going on with his girlfriend. Do not ask when he'll be able to write or call you.

If you can, have a meal together. Reminisce about silly things he did as a little kid. Do not express your deep reservations about the wisdom of the United States Government trusting him with leading soldiers/nuclear power/airplanes.

Take anything he's not bringing on the bus trip. Press money into his hand to buy a decent meal at the airport. Hug him, and let yourself feel how big he's grown, how strong, how ready to leave. Say goodbye briskly, smiling, remind him you'll see him at graduation.

Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry.


  1. I'm alternately chuckling and sniffling over the truth in each of these . . . saying goodbye to your children is tough. In the end, all you can do is love them fiercely, pray hard for their safety and well-being, and treasure every moment you have with them . . . .

  2. So true, Julia. I do hope you're assembling all of these into a book!
    My kids at every age waved a distracted 'bye and never looked back. In fact we planned to have a meal with our oldest after we had settled her into her college dorm. She had already made friends and had a dinner date by that time. "Shouldn't you be getting back?" She asked.

  3. Went through all of that except sending one off to the military. Now they both live out of state and I cherish every minute of their visits. And still get weepy when we part.

  4. Great thoughts Julia, even though you made me snort coffee all over the laptop. I've experienced some permutation of all the above, including sending one off to the military.

    I have another for you however, one you may likely experience at some time in your life.

    My eldest grandson came to us for spring break, bringing his girlfriend. Yes, they shared a room and a bed. It's very interesting to realize that that sweet baby, the one I saw born, held when he was two minutes old, gave the first bath to, you know, that one, is having SEX with a GIRL.

    Mon dieu!

    Last Christmas they got married, sigh.

  5. Julia, this has to be a book or a syndicated newspaper column--you're brilliant!

    Ann, that's a good addition--what a happy moment when they married...

  6. Julia seriously. You must start writing columns. This is off the charts .

  7. I'm with all the above commenters--compile these into a book--but not quite yet--in your spare time, hmmmm?

    You had me like Joan--chuckling and tears in my eyes, at the same time. Peeling them off my legs and sobbing halfway to my job (a three-hour/ten-hour drive, depending on project), giving the bus driver cookies at holidays (please, please be kind to my boys), giving them the car keys for their first solo drive (head on door, please let them come home safely). And sometimes, hey, I'm only human--please let them spend the night at a friend's!

  8. Loved reading this, Julia! I still remember walking my oldest to the bus for her first trip to first grade. But she made me walk behind her and pretend I had no idea who she was.

    Now for us the pleasure is in the coming backs. Tonight my daughter and her husband and their two kids arrive for a visit. I am making Lucy's Granola, making beds, shopping for bagels, sorting the toys (dressing the dolls so they can be immediately undressed), putting a rub on the spareribs which we'll barbecue, and looking forward to the messes that will be instantly created when they arrive. Thinking about buying Candyland. Can a mouthy, 'mature" three-year-old play?

  9. So achingly, painfully, amusingly true.

  10. Yes, Julia. You absolutely must compile these into a book. I burst out laughing at the "Rawhide" line.

    I've made through the first day of high school with The Girl. The Boy does that this summer. At every send-off the kids waved me off and are ready to get on with their plans. They never clung to me and cried. Never. Not daycare, not kindergarten, not camp (even the ones they attended without a parent). Perhaps I just have really, REALLY independent kids.

    The Girl did let me take her picture on the first day of high school, but the bus (which they will both take) leaves earlier than I get up, so we'll see what happens in the fall.

    Last night, The Girl and I started talking college. She freaked out - a little. She's a junior. She'll be 16 in a month in a half. She's been looking forward to this for four years and now IT'S HERE and next year she has to get serious about the college search.

    I had to talk her off the ledge. In four years, I'm sure it'll be reversed. =)

  11. So why are my eyes wet? I don't even have kids!

    Kudos to you and all the other parents out there who are in the midst of this transition, e.g., on the brink of the rest of their lives. You are brave and wonderful, each and every one of you.

    And good luck to the (grown up) kiddos!

  12. Yes, Julia,s book, book, book!! But only when book in progress is finished!!

    So funny, so true. I expected my daughter to cry and cling when I dropped her at her first day of pre-school. (She was not quite three.) She said, "Bye, Mommy," waved and ran inside. I sat in the car and sniffled, then told myself I'd done a good job if my child was confident and independent.

    But I'm with Hallie on the "come backs." I'm so lucky now that daughter and son-in-law are so close to us, and I get to see my darling granddaughter most days. What could possibly be better?

  13. I liked what Brenda said: "on the brink of the rest of their lives." That seems to be true for every child, every year, on these momentous days! How swiftly they pass. Maybe you have a title right there, for a book you must write and share, Julia?

  14. Oh my. We've all been there. When I took my son to daycare for the first time he thought it was great. Until I left. He threw a fit and tried to make a break for it.They had to latch the door to prevent escape. We did our big goodbyes when he went into the army. Now he is in college, but that's on his nickel and his terms. Still waiting to see if he'll be back to roost with us for a bit before he's done.

  15. Rhys, Debs, Mary - if your child runs inside and says, "Bye, Mom!" (or even better, "Shouldn't you be going?") you know you've done your job right.

    Pat D, because of language school, The Boy's term of commitment is six years, and he has plans (somewhere amidst or after) to complete his BA, as you say, on his own nickle. So right now, we're planning on turning his bedroom into a guest room.

    However, knowing what's happened with other friends, I'm never going to say never about coming back to the nest!

  16. Brenda, a thought on those wet too and never a parent...but we've both been the kid.

    Julia, thanks...I've watched parents (mainly mothers) do these good have distilled the essence.

  17. Julia, I nominate today's blog post for a humor award, and join in with others who think you should write a humor column and/ or book!

    Although I have no children I AM a big sister to four, and something of a surrogate mom to our youngest sibling. She has had a lifetime struggle with mental health issues, and her perception of reality is often skewed. Sometimes I can only laugh at her interpretations! About twenty- four years ago she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The first few years she didn't do too badly but the illness eventually caused her to become quite physically disabled. Severe cognitive damage didn't help her already odd perceptions of life. Her social worker at the local mental health agency and I heard of a summer camp program for adults with MS. We discussed it with her and she was interested in attending, She qualified for a complete "camper ship". " All" I had to do was get her there on the Sunday afternoon that the five day program began. A volunteer from the mental health agency agreed to take her home on Friday afternoon. By the day before camp began she called and told me she didn't think she wanted to go! I told her that since all the expenses had been paid it would be rude of her to back out at that point without a really good reason, such as illness. She half-heartedly agreed with me.The next morning, I woke up with a headache, high fever, sore throat, and body aches and pains. I was determined to not let on to her that I was sick, because she would only use it as an excuse not to go. I picked her up at her apartment and she never noticed that I barely could speak. She cried on and off about not wanting to go.I had trouble being patient and kept telling her variations of "it's paid for; you're going!" It's quite a long drive from Milford. At around the halfway point she insisted that I had to turn around and I insisted that she had to go and that " I didn't give up my Sunday afternoon only so you could change your mind halfway there. I'm sure you'll have a good time," I unloaded her things when we arrived at the camp and ran ahead to see where she needed to check in. There were a couple of different lines and I got her through them. The final checkpoint was where she had to leave her medications with a nurse. The nurse was a lovely, friendly woman. Just as my sister was handing over her meds, the lights went out. The nurse said "oh, dear; it's hard for me to read your paperwork. I hope they get the lights back on soon." Then she told us that we could proceed to the cabin my sister was assigned to. I started walking towards the door. My sister grabbed my arm and said " you have to take me home NOW! I'm not staying in this place. Did you hear what that woman said to me? She doesn't want me here!" My sister " heard" her say " you get the H*** out of here! We don't want you here!" I had to try not to laugh while explaining to my sister that she hear the nurse incorrectly! (Her weird misperceptions at work again!) I finally managed to convince her that she misunderstood, got her to her cabin, and then had to make up her bed for her, because she was busy sobbing the entire time! She didn't want me to leave, my throat was getting worse and I felt more and more feverish. She followed me out to the door, crying the entire time. I convinced her that she would have fun, but I said a prayer for her cabin mates and for the staff! The week passed with no emergency phone calls. On Friday she called me after she got home and said " I want to thank you for insisting that I should stay at the camp! I haven't had that much fun in years! She continued going for the next few years, until she was no longer able to live on her own.

    Deb Romano

  18. Julia, count me in the numbers that want you to do a book on your family anecdotes. But, as Debs says, not until you finish the next Clare and Russ.

    My girl and boy are now 32 and 29, and I think they are both out of the house for good, but you never know. My daughter, who lives an hour away, is married with two children, whom I adore. I do believe I was born to be a grandmother. Hahaha! Son lives three hours away with his girlfriend, and they have a projected wedding date of October 2017. My daughter never did come back home to live after college, but my son took a year off from college between his sophomore and junior years and came home during that time. He came home once more after graduating from college, too, for a few months. I think he and his future bride are now ensconced in their own nest. I should not, too, that my daughter was always better about spending the night away as a child and going places than my son. He was the homebody who didn't even want to stay at his grandparents' house.

    And going through all of those milestones that you talk about, Julia, are so joyful and at the same time heart-wrenching. I think the hardest good-bye for me was when I said good-bye to each child when taking she and he to college that first year, leaving them at their dorm, no more fussing over left to do. The trips home after each of those were tearful indeed. I realized that we were truly sending them out into the world and the home where they grew up would become the home they visited in the future. Dang, I might cry now.

  19. Julia, Offspring #2 is a DLI grad and military cryptologic linguist. It's a tremendous launching pad for all sorts of adventures and career options. Congratulations to your son (and to you for having a boy who did well enough on his ASVAB and DLAB to get there!).

    Do try to get out to visit while he's in Monterey-- the Presidio is gorgeous!