Letting Go While Keeping
When your baby is placed in your arms for the very first time, you are overwhelmed by parental instinct. I am not referring to the feeling of incredible, incomparable, heart bursting love. No, not that one. I am speaking about a deep need to protect and defend no matter what. That, which is referred to, as the Momma Bear Syndrome. “You hurt my baby; now you must die.”
You live, breath and eat by this unwritten code, unaffected by outside interference, for your child’s first eighteen years of life. Alright, unaffected is an exaggeration. The teenage years are a rollercoaster of interference, usually led by your own flesh and blood fully encouraged by a cheer squad of peers.
But I digress. Other than a few stomach lurching fairground experiences, you rule their lives. You control their every movement, every breath they take, every move they make, and every place they travel to… You are the almighty and powerful adult. At least in your own mind.
The Adult Child is a Child No More
Then one day, they are all grown up. They have finished school and saved up for a dream trip. The planning begins; researching the heck out of all their destination stops. They are going. Alone. To South America.
Your heart stops. Then it restarts at an unusually fast pace. It sends Morse code messages to your brain “Stop this immediately. Imminent danger. Abort mission.”
Your brain, the one who remembers how well you have raised the fruit of thy womb, ignores all the heart’s warnings. It sends a message to the lips. They start moving. The words out of your mouth: “What a great idea! Do it! This will be an experience you will never forget.”
This is the moment your heart dies a little. It is also the moment it decides that it needs a way to circumnavigate the brain. The heart starts relying on its old friend “Guilt”.
Guilt as a Tool
You might be reading this and think “Guilt is a nasty tool parents use on their kids to manipulate them and get them to do what they want.” And you would be right. But it works. Mind you, it only works if used properly and not abused. It works if you have been using it all of your child’s life. You see, it is not necessarily the use of it that does the trick, it is more the conscience your child has developed because you taught them right from wrong. Because you showed them what being safe means and what danger looks like. You just need to drop a little reminder once in a while. DO NOT use it to control your adult child. Ever. It will backfire every time. Guaranteed.
It is easy, almost 10 years later, to joke about it.
All kidding aside. It is extremely hard to let your adult child grow up. It is even harder to watch them leave the nest. Now multiply that tenfold when the “leaving the nest” means travelling halfway around the world for several years.
Upon graduating from University, our usually very dependent daughter, Ali, decided she wanted to travel the world before settling down with a job and face the responsibilities that plague the average adult life.
When she told me, it was half asking, half informing me. I could see she was a bit nervous, maybe even hesitant. She really wanted this, but I could also see that she needed encouragement.
Dissuading her would have been easy. I am pretty sure that the aforementioned “Guilt” could have been put into play and that even manipulating her into changing her mind might have worked. Instead, I did what was best for her. Overcoming my maternal instincts to protect at all cost, I told her it was a great idea. That it would be good for her. It would test her, change her. She would have the most incredible learning experiences in her life. And you know what, I meant it. I also believed it.
I Was an Adult Child Too
My parents’ generation raised their children expecting them to follow their example. Go to school, graduate, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, travel once you retire. I wish I hadn’t started on that route. Not that there is anything wrong with this choice, if that is what makes you happy. My husband and I wanted more.
We travelled because of his work when our kids were little. I experienced this with young children. It would have been much different as a young adult without kids. We loved travelling, it changed us in ways one could never have imagine.
After this work experience, we had to limit ourselves to family vacations to the States and later on, taking them on a trip to Europe. I wanted my daughter to experience more than I had. Bitten by wanderlust, we had to keep it at bay. She didn’t have too. I didn’t want her too.
Planning For The Trip of a Lifetime
After she did much planning and research, followed by discussions together, done more for my peace of mind that hers, off she went to South America. Did I mention earlier that she travelled alone after the first two weeks spent with a friend?
It was the hardest, toughest, scariest three months of sleepless nights of my life. Everyone thought I was insane. At times, I wanted to tell her to come home when she was homesick. Instead, I told her to wait a day or two before deciding. Trust me, I would have loved to tell her to come home but what would have she learned? To run home at the first glimpse of things not going her way? She was glad to have waited and given it a day or so. She saw that she could handle it.
A Lesson in Trust
You see, letting go, encouraging your adult child to experience life on their own, that is also a life lesson. One you knowingly or unknowingly have prepared them for as they were growing up.
Trust your adult child. Trust them. I cannot say it enough times.
You have done all you can do to protect them, to teach them valuable life lessons. Raising them to, hopefully, have the same morals and values you have. Telling them to listen to their gut instincts, not to walk in dark back alleys at night, to eat their vegetables, to sometimes trust strangers, and also to not speak to strangers. It is time to let them prove to you, and especially to them, that they can depend on themselves.
Was it easy? Hell, to the NO!
Technology to the Rescue
Thank goodness for Skype. She called me every day, sometimes twice a day. Then, occasionally, she skyped every second day. The first few times, I worried. Did I nag? The first time, yes. Then I stopped and started asking “Why?” instead. She had good reasons. I quickly learned that if she didn’t call, she was having a good time and was okay. I learned to trust her and to treat her as an adult and not as a child.
Sometimes, I wasn’t there when she tried to call. What happened as a result? She opened up more, she shared more. I noticed that she was more considerate of my worries.
She acted like the adult she had become.
My Daughter, My Peer
It is the hardest thing to do as a parent of adult children, treating them as adults. Bite your tongue, try not to criticize. Instead, ask questions. Maybe lead them into realizing what you want to tell them by asking the right questions. Adult children are much more likely to do what you would like them to if they figure it out on their own. They are less likely to reject your idea, if you do not tell them what they should be doing. This last one took me some time to figure out.
Two-way communication, not interrogation. Ask nicely, do not demand. You can explain your worries. Do not tell them they are acting stupid. Remember, you are speaking to another adult. Put yourself in their place. Now put your own parent in yours. How do you feel? Yeah, I thought so.
Not Everything Was Perfect
Ali had some scary experiences and she did not share them all with us while away. We found out later. I was grateful to find out later and not at the moment. She survived those on her own and didn’t need our advice. Although she admitted later that when she thought of doing certain things, my voice crept into her head and spoke to her. She knew that I might not approve of some things. She knew what I would say. I called it “Guilt” earlier. It was the wrong choice of word. That inner voice you plague your adult child with, we should call it the adult version of guilt. It is “the Voice of Reason”. YAY MOM!
Still, when she needed our advice, when she was upset, she reached out to us. She asked for our opinion. Trust that your adult child knows when to ask and when not to say a thing. They learn that fast. You learn that fast.
What else did I learn while trying to raise my adult child? That not reacting to something you do not like is at times the best way to get your adult child to reflect about it. Sometimes, they just want to test you, to push you, to see how far they can go. They are also learning what it means to be an adult. Let them find out.
Tattoos and Guinea Pigs
Ali celebrated her 21st birthday in Peru. She ate guinea pig and got a tattoo. She called to tell me.
“That’s nice” I said
“Did you hear me? I said I got a tattoo!”
“Of what?” I replied.
She explained it was an Indigenous symbol. I thought it was a deep, meaningful thing to get done on her 21st birthday. She asked me if I was upset with her. I asked if the place she had it done at was clean and antiseptic. It was, according to her, as clean as any place in Canada and that they had used new needles they took out of the packaging in front of her. I told her that in that case, why should I be upset?
Of course, inside I was yelling:
“You got a friggin’ tattoo in Peru? Peru of all places on this planet? You couldn’t wait to come home??? You will end up with AIDS or with some kind of disease!”
When she came home, I silently counted the days it took for diseases to appear.
This phone conversation was the beginning, in my opinion, of our path to a changing relationship. I tried hard not to ask questions that were none of my business when she mentioned guys she met and liked, or when she met up with total strangers and ate odd foods that might be dangerous. I learned to trust her, to let go a bit every day. Even though I still worried, I worried less. I let go bit by bit of her being my responsibility.
It was liberating!
She had many other trips afterwards. Each, a little less nerve-wracking than the previous one. Why? Because I knew that if she needed advice, help or just a shoulder to cry on, she would let me know. I also learned that she was an adult with good sense and good instincts. What also helped, if I am to be completely honest, is that she eventually started travelling with her boyfriend.
I just wish, to this day, that she would give me more details at the onset of disconcerting call to avoid my imagining the worst. Like the time she “fell through a bridge” on a mountain in Southeast Asia. I imagined her hanging perilously hundreds of feet above a gorge with a roaring river below. No, it was just three feet above ground. Other than that little issue with omission, she usually had it all under control.
My advice to parents of adult children with wanderlust, let them go.
Let them discover the world. Let them discover themselves while doing it. Tell them you will be keeping the home fires burning, that you are always available to give them advice, and will fly anywhere in the world to bring them home. But when and only when they ask. You’ve got their backs. Their steps forward, these, they belong to them.
And what does she think? Here’s her response:
My parents raised me to be a traveler. They raised me to be curious about the world, to take in all the sights and sounds and tastes of new places, whether they were closer to home or on another continent. We spent over a year living on the island of St. Lucia when I was a toddler. Travel was part of our life together. It was inevitable that I would grow up wanting to see more, more, more.
I knew I wanted to go on a backpacking trip after graduating University. I had studied Spanish and Latin American Studies, so my destination seemed obvious: South America. The only problem was, who would go with me? For 3 months? Group tours were too expensive and didn’t really appeal to me. One friend wanted to come to Chile with me for the first 2 weeks, but after that, I would be on my own. I was 21 and a grown up with a degree who spoke Spanish. This was something I could do.
Support and Excitement
And my parents chose to support me. It wasn’t easy for them to listen to their baby girl plan a solo trip to South America. But instead of trying to dissuade me, instead of showing concern and anxiety, my Mom chose to be excited for me. I spent hours planning my trip, creating a detailed itinerary for them. Part of my plan was to show them that I was not just jumping off a plane into a foreign land, but meticulously planning the trip of a lifetime.
I didn’t have a smartphone, but brought a small laptop with me; Skyping and Facebooking my Mom as often as possible. Hostels always had Wi-Fi, so it was easy to keep in touch and provide constant updates. If I knew there might be a time without internet access, I would let my parents know. I knew that it took a lot for them to let me go on this adventure, the least I could do was share it with them, let them know I was happy, healthy and safe. Sure, I didn’t always share with them all the details, sometimes I waited until afterwards to tell them something (i.e. Getting a tattoo in Peru!). But they trusted me. They knew they had raised me to be a strong, independent, intelligent woman. It didn’t matter whether I was in Canada or abroad, I was still the same person.
My message to parents whose kids want to travel is: Let them! It means you raised an adventurer, a person who wants to learn and grow and experience their life to the fullest. Trust them.
Monique MacDonald is a social media foodie and community cheerleader. She is the mother of two and a wife of one. You can find out more about her and Ali’s adventures on their blog “Like Mother, Like Daughter“
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