It’s Time to Let the Children Go

Written by

September 1, 2013

“Where are you going, my little one, little one,

 Where are you going, my baby, my own?

 Turn around and you’re two

 Turn around and you’re four

 Turn around and you’re a young girl going out of my door.

 Turn around, turn around,

 Turn around and you’re a young girl going out of my door.” 

Do you remember this song in the 1970s by Malvina Reynolds?  There have been quite a few singers, but my favorite version was that of Nancy Griffith!  This song, for many reasons, makes me feel nostalgic, as it reminds me how time always flows so quickly.

This week, many parents were in tears as they let their first child off at a campus somewhere.  In our family, there will be four nephews going to college this year including Jeremy, born weeks prematurely, who will be a freshman in Pennsylvania in a few weeks.  It seemed like yesterday when I made a detour from my office every morning to visit him in the NICU for the two months he was there.  My nephew Sebastian, on the other hand, will be going to college in Germany.  He was a toddler during my wedding!  Where has all that time gone? 

Several weeks ago, Time magazine had an issue reporting on how happy and content some people are due to their choice of having no children.  It is true that I know quite a few patients who have chosen this path and have been fine.  They do not have to save money for some college funds or weddings for daughters.  They travel the world and eat in fancy restaurants and go to the gym after work.  Not having children, to these folks, gives them certain freedoms that we parents gave up.

I read Kathleen Parker’s article in the Washington Post, several days after the release of Time’s issue on childless couples by choice, expressing how special it is to be a parent and what the experience has taught her as a human being.  She, like me, appreciates the learning process of parenthood, including the opportunity to live “beyond” yourself for someone else.  By sacrificing for our children, we learn to love and to be loved unconditionally. Until we have that experience, Ms Parker rightly said, we will never know what parenthood experiences mean.  Notice I didn’t write that we will never know what we missed.  Missing something implies we missed something important or good.  Again, everyone is different and we should choose our path to joy.

Last week, also in the Washington Post, Michael Gertson wrote a moving article on his experience of dropping his eldest son to college.  You could feel his tremendous love for his son and his sense of loss, not of course a permanent loss, but a nostalgic loss of the time he was his son’s caretaker, when they were together daily as father and son.  College, Mr Gertson implied, is the beginning of his son’s “departure” from a life of dependency and transition into adulthood.  It is a ritual that every 18 year old in the Western world will experience.  Although he will always have a room at the Gertson’s home, the father-son relationship will forever be different, not one of dependency.   

This week, I witnessed this sentiment repeatedly in my office with some moms unable to control their tears.  One mother even cried about letting her daughter off at her kindergarden class!  The rebellious teenagers have finally grown up and about to enter the complex world of adulthood.  We have nurtured them until their wings are strong enough to fly, the same way I had watched the red-tailed hawk feeding a rat to her young in the nest by my office window.  I watched the hungry mouths of five baby hawks fighting over the food.  Several weeks later, I watched the baby hawks leaning by the office windows peeking at us.  Their feathers were light brown instead of white, and their eyes were piercing like their mothers’.  Then one day when I went to work, they were no longer there, the mother or the babies.  They all had grown up and flew away.  I stood by the window, wondering where all the hawks have gone to and what will happen to them.   I sensed a nostalgic loss looking at their empty nest.

It is always difficult for a parent to say goodbye to their children’s childhood.  We can no longer watch over them, as the hawk watching her young.  We can only hope all the wisdom we tried to instill will follow them like a shadow, helping them make the “right” decisions and keeping them from harm’s way.  No matter how hard we try, sometimes bad things still happen as young men often stray away from the straight path their parents “designed” for them.  Other times, “Things just happen”, as at the Boston Marathon where the only child of a Chinese couple was among the three dead, or the beautiful Vietnamese college student in Falls Church, Virginia, who gave a ride to a stranger, a young man asking for help to get to Fairfax hospital but who was on drugs and tragically ended her life a few minutes later.

Ironically, on the same day and the same page where the Washington Post reported about the young man’s trial for the murder of the Vietnamese college student, there was another story about a new social crisis in China.  The story reported on the more than one million parents who have lost their only child.  The one child rule of China has caused so much sorrow to older parents whose only child died for various reasons.  The parents are now too old to have another child and are left with anger against their government which has stripped them of one basic right, that of having more than one child if they desire.  This article was so disturbing that it haunted me for several days.  It is odd to think of a society where one has no cousins, aunts or uncles.  If one’s parents die, one becomes all alone in the world.  More disturbing, imagine a society where there is only one child per family, and most are boys, a society which is socially imbalanced!  Guess what, this is the reality in China due to the strong preference for male children.  This has led to prenatal determination of gender and then incredible rates of aborting the female fetuses or putting them up for adoption.  Currently there are up to 100-130 boys for every girl in China and an article in Scientific American estimated that 7 years from now, there may be as many as 30 to 40 million more men then women of marriageable age! 

It was interesting to read the on-line debate that followed the Washington Post’s article between the “rational” readers who explained how the Chinese government has saved its society from hunger and war because of potential overpopulation problems, and the “emotional” readers like me who thought the same government has coerced its people off their path to joy, that having children should be the most basic human right.  What’s more, many social scientists have theorized that with such an extraordinary number of single males who have no opportunity to marry, aggression in many forms may result within their society as well as through the military directed externally.   

As many of you are bidding farewell to your children as they head to school for the first time or to colleges, I think you should celebrate the wonderful relationship you have had with them. It is time for them to go, but they know they will always have a place at home to which they can return.  Hopefully, all the parental love, guidance and support will prepare them for a good future.  We should also celebrate the freedom to have children or to stay childless.  At least, the pursuit of happiness in this aspect is totally up to us and not our government. 

I thought I should mention that in early July, Time magazine had an issue on the pursuit of happiness, another topic on which I will blog later.  Research has found, according to Time, that single parents and those with three or more children tend to be less happy than other parents.  Happiest time of parenthood?  That period when the child or children are between 3 – 12 years old.  Do children bring happiness to parents?  Researchers have found children, overall, make little effect on parents’ happiness.  Time did not cite the sources of these studies, but I can predict you, your friends and families will debate vigorously over this topic! 

“ We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for the future.”

                                          – Franklin D. Roosevelt