Home Alone: The Liberation and the Absence

It was unfair, but I couldn’t resist. The exasperated parent with an insolent teen remarked with undisguised envy, “It must be wonderful having grown children away from home.” To which I replied, “No, it’s awful.” Her reaction reminded me of facial expressions some winters ago when a friend, hobbling on crutches, finally told the truth. “Skiing?” came the good-natured inquiry. “No, plane.” Immediate chagrin—not the expected answer.

There are as many responses to “How is it when children leave?” as there are mothers. My observations will sound familiar to some, foreign to others. The experience is at once personal and universal. When I said “awful,” I meant it in contrast to when our family was here, home, together. We are now there, away, apart.

Writing about my three members of Generation X is a favorite topic. Aside from seeking spiritual truth, nothing matters more. Odd, since I never much cared about children. Unlike one of my daughters, who was intrigued by them from the outset, I was more or less indifferent. If she was an eager surrogate, in my teens I was strictly a babysitter watching the clock. Picket fences and powdering baby bottoms held no allure. I was geared for a career when it wasn’t yet popular. But I became the woman who, at delivery, realized that beside this event everything paled. Maternity eclipses self, diminishing if not nullifying previous preoccupations. When the obstetrician holds aloft that first baby, one is suffused with an awesome sense of participating in creation. It is when one feels closest to God, to His overwhelming presence. It is life’s most exhilarating and most humbling moment.

Holding a newborn is the time one feels complete, the very antithesis of empty. The sensation, however, is ephemeral. What begins too soon is the slow, accelerating process of departure. Babies become youngsters who become teens who become adults. Children leave us in a gradual progression. Emotionally they first leave when they cleave to a friend, closing the bedroom door lest we overhear conversation. It’s the first taste of exclusion and it smarts. But we understand the leitmotif of independence, reinforced even years later and miles away, when we gamely promote the idea of sleep for a weary son or daughter and the reaction is a pause, then the measured tones of patience tried. “Don’t say that anymore, Mother. I’m grown up; I don’t need it.” It’s true, the need is gone. It is possible to withhold counsel. What children don’t understand is the impossibility of disconnection. We used to worry they would eat the Ajax. Now it’s that they will be assaulted in a parking garage. The specifics change, not the concern.

Unprepared for the Final Exit

We are introduced if not prepared for the final exit when children go off to college. When the room is vacated for good, two reactions occur. Less sentimental Moms engage in serious renovation, stripping walls of posters which caused former occupants to swoon, and otherwise establishing a neutral zone. One friend’s daughter accused her mother of “turning my room into a fern bar,” inadvertently hanging on to the possessive pronoun. Others of us disturb not a jot or tittle. My daughters refer to their brother’s old room as The Shrine. I plead guilty. There are comforts in the remains of those days. I find myself passing an open door, momentarily arrested by souvenirs of other years, triggering memories, and being staggered by the swift disappearance of decades.

Departed children are usually dutiful about birthdays and anniversaries. They knuckle under to the pressure of Mother’s Day, understanding its commercial genesis but, trapped, send cards anyway. Other than that, one scarcely sees their handwriting. The exception is that one daughter and I exchange mailers, collections of clippings we know would interest the other, and to which we add personalized Post-It notes. But letters home went out with poodle skirts; the phone’s the thing. Children frequently express bewilderment when they call and find me absent, asking via the answering machine, “Where are you?” The implication is that I am more or less on call, devoid of outside obligations or entertainment. I’m vulnerable enough to feel a twinge of guilt, but it passes. Children are priority, not totality.

The great contemporary contradiction is that while children “go,” they are, financially, only semidetached. There is a lot of recycling in today’s volatile economy. The solid nine-to-five world in which I spent time and supported myself has disintegrated. Stability, loyalty, and long-term employment with one company are concepts as dated as hula hoops. “Kids” are in and out of jobs at the whim of employers, the market, or themselves. Having said goodbye to home, many young adults find themselves once again in the room with the dusty football helmet or the dried prom corsage. My own trio would prefer public flogging to returning to childhood rooms, but this means accepting unattractive alternatives. Working two jobs, seven days a week, is not unusual. One daughter, who graduated with academic honors, temporarily folded lingerie in the stockroom at Victoria’s Secret to help pay rent. Help is the operative word. Since safety is paramount, and rentals in affluent areas high, this almost always requires Dad’s generosity and (ever-less) deep pockets.

Recoiling from Relativism

Any commentary on children living at other addresses fails, however, if it does not mention the painful possible consequence, one which our own mothers never had to face: I’ve lost count of young adults living with those with whom they are romantically involved. There is a sense of dejection when the answering machine chirps, “Jim and Margaret aren’t home, but leave a message and we’ll call back.” The message unspoken is that Jim and Margaret do not have a home, they are playing house. Cohabitation among children raised to believe it is reserved for marriage reveals a capitulation to the siren song of relativism, to the relentless hammering in every venue that prohibition is inhibition, that there are no moral absolutes, that morality is whatever you make it, whatever you want it to be. There is an ugly word to describe living together without the sacrament, but we shrink from applying it to the child we love. Parental pain has less to do with a betrayal of “family values”—which cohabitation is—than with fear about losing the perception of what is inherently wrong, what is in fact that unfashionable word sin. We mourn their loss of clarity, the determination to oppose attitudes about sexual liaisons which deaden conscience and paralyze the will. We grieve because we know this blindness is more lethal than any sexually transmitted disease, about which proliferation due to permissiveness much noise is made, but whose true remedy is spelled out only by people ridiculed as religiously rigid. So that code of health, physical and spiritual, is rejected because it “no longer applies to modern society,” including some of our own children.

When the last child leaves, there is no gold watch ceremony for service given because there is no retirement. Moms are Moms from birth to death, the child’s birth to the Mom’s death. The severed umbilical cord is the sole separation. Spiritual ties are indissoluble. The house one day is empty of children, but they crowd our thoughts, and our prayers.

Many of us are veterans of the sandwiched generation, companions once to aging parents at the same time caring for growing children. Our schedules and perhaps our priorities were full of conflicts and collisions. Now with children gone away, and parents in eternity, we slip out of overdrive into a kind of cruise control. We’re busy still, and involved. But we are free to make schedules of our own, rather than accommodating the needs of others. It is a remarkable change. We find ourselves catching our breaths and thinking, “aren’t I supposed to be somewhere?” There is an almost giddy sense of liberation, after decades of tyranny by the clock and calendar.

The downside, of course, is the absence—of the sights and sounds of the familiar. The phone is the common link, but the phone is imperfect. Often the subtext of the recorded voice says, “I’m not here either, Mom; you can’t talk to me.” But yes, I can and I do. I reach you via a mechanism which doesn’t threaten interruption with call-waiting. I am never put on hold. Winging your way, without interference, is my prayer, through the One Who first put you into my life, Who transformed me into someone called a Mother. You will understand the enduring magnitude of that event only when it becomes your turn. It will alter your life. It did mine.

  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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