A Story About Gratitude

That night I wrote in my journal: “He showed his love for me by allowing me to hug him good-bye...” That’s how I acknowledged one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. That day my baby, my first born, moved out of the house, our family home. I left him behind in a home I would not know to begin a chapter of his life that I would not fully see or understand.

Those words had occurred to me as I drove the two hours home. I felt lighter then, and so the words showed up clear and fully formed. I smiled at the thought, and even laughed, alone in the car. I was okay. I was going to be okay.

It was the culmination of years of worry, anxiety over the impending doom of his growing independence. Learning to drive, disappearing into the evenings and nights with friends, discounting my opinions, disagreeing with my values, making fun of my TV shows, graduating, finding an apartment to move into. Choosing to be anywhere else but with me.

Wasn’t this exactly how I had planned the whole parenthood adventure? For 18 years, I had consciously and enthusiastically worked to help my precious little boy grow into a self-sufficient, functioning member of the world. He confidently believed himself capable of fulfilling that role. Well before turning 18, he was confident in his ability to take control. He had been making all sorts of plans for this life away from us. Many of the plans I was not entirely aware of until my brief conversations with him had evolved into full-on harassment and nagging. Sure, I had wanted him to be independent and go live his own life - but apparently I had also expected to be a significant part of it, forever.

This image that began forming of his future without me was terrifying. He was chomping at the bit to get away from me. And if his senior year in high school had shown me anything it was that he was loathe to communicate any of the details of his life with me ever again. I only knew he was still alive because he surfaced to raid the kitchen and had a girlfriend who was sympathetic to my growing neediness. I was becoming a very false and strained sort of mother who insisted on forced hugs and cheery, superficial chatting. The sorts of things that just convinced him to stay away from me and enjoy an honest and relaxed time with friends.

I knew I was pushing him away while desperately trying to keep him close. I liked him. We had things in common. I thought we had. I could make him laugh, once upon a time. And now I was pushing him away. I realized that it was completely within the realm of possibility that he would leave home and never speak to me again. For the rest of my life. It happens. Children and parents drift apart - or split in a huge, nasty confrontation. He could die, and I might not hear about it for a very long time, if ever. The scenarios piled up in my imagination. I began to believe that this would be us, and I was so scared. So enormously, desperately scared.

What was I to do? It was inevitable that he would move out, begin creating a life of his own, and not need or want his mother as often or as deeply as he had when he was younger. This was a good thing. It was what I wanted for him if I’m honest about it. So I knew that ultimately I needed to just figure out a way to deal with it. I couldn’t force him to like me. I couldn’t keep him at home dependent on me. I didn’t want him to be overly concerned with my welfare at the expense of his own happiness.

I remember being 18. I was excited, nervous, curious, confident and happy about my future - and I didn’t think too much about my parents. If at all. What they thought or worried about. How they might have come to terms with me, the youngest and last child at home, leaving to go off into the big world by myself. I didn’t know how to live through that day. The saying goodbye day. The day that might mean the last day.

I found myself, inevitably, driving with a car full of boxes south through Seattle. It was raining and the traffic was congested through downtown. I could no longer see the U-Haul truck my husband was driving, nor my son’s box laden car. They had left me behind. I had spent the last hour raging against my fear and sadness and worry. The last few years I had learned to cope with anxiety, live more honestly and embrace changes and challenges. Why could I not figure out how to accept this? This inevitable, planned for, good day. It was going to be too much for me to handle. And then, at that worst possible point in the trip, I understood what to do.

I have been counseling clients for a couple of years now on acceptance. And what was the step after acceptance? Gratitude. That’s how to release those uncomfortable memories, those nagging worries, those painful traumas. Accept them honestly, and then express gratitude for the honor of experiencing them. Recognize the lesson learned, the gift received.

I said aloud to the car’s interior and the rainy city traffic, “Thank you for letting me be your mom. For letting me be a part of your amazing life. Thank you for the beautiful and too brief time I got to be loving and supportive and witnessing and present. I am so grateful for every moment I got to share with you.” 

I bawled as I said this. It’s a miracle I didn’t crash. And because I expressed such a strong physical reaction to those words, I knew them to be deeply, deeply true. I was grateful for any time I had been given. I didn’t need to say those exact words to my son at that time. He was not ready to hear them. But I finally was. This moment was about me. About being able to step out of his way fully and gratefully watch him becoming the man I hope for. About truly accepting all the possibilities that our futures might hold for us. To be able to hug him goodbye, recognize that he didn’t pull away or roll his eyes when I reached out to do so, and to be able to drive all the way back home smiling at the memory of it.

He showed his love for me by allowing me to hug him good-bye and I am so deeply grateful I received that.” 

I know that as my younger son now learns to drive and venture into the rest of his life, I will worry and stress and remind myself to accept the inevitable. I know that through it all I have a powerful tool in expressing gratitude for all the time we still share. And, by the way, I am incredibly grateful to still hear from my older son and see him and hug him and reconnect with that emerging adult. Gratitude has allowed me to decompress. I’m a bit more fun for him to be around.