The Ultimate Balancing Act: Letting go of our children
By Amy Hirshberg Lederman
I waved goodbye to my son at the airport as he returned for his final semester of college, schlepping 2 very ratty looking duffel bags. The visit had been good, but not without its tensions. A variation of the old Henny Youngman joke crossed my mind.
"Take my child - please!" I thought, trying to swallow back the lump in my throat as I pulled away from the curb.
From the moment Joshua was born, his dad and I knew, at least intellectually, that someday he would grow up and leave home, as we would naturally want him to do. Our job, as his parents, was to raise him so that he could become independent and be ready and feel good about leaving us. But the years between that first awareness and the reality did not, unfortunately, prepare me for how best to parent him at this point in his life or how hard it would be for me to let go.
The parenting journey is a long and arduous one that requires more physical stamina than Superman, more psychological expertise than Freud and the financial resources of Bill Gates. At each age and stage of our children's lives, we must teach them how to encounter and maneuver through the world and provide them with age-appropriate skills, tools and guidance to enable them to become independent and self-sufficient. And as they learn, so do we, although often not quickly enough, to feel competent or confident as parents.
Somewhere in the back of my mind however, has been a feeling that once my children left home for good, things would become easier: The house would stay cleaner, my car wouldn't look like a dorm room, and my nights would be undisturbed by the sound of tires over our driveway at 3:00 in the morning. What I didn't take into account however, was the emergence of an emotion that has hit me like a tsunami: Plain, old-fashioned fear. Fear that I can no longer protect my children from the big, bad world; fear that they won't be happy, or feel appreciated and loved; and fear that without their trusty mother by their side, they will make poor decisions and terrible mistakes.
I talk my fears over with my friends, my own mother (who can't resist telling me that what comes around, goes around) and my husband, who calms my fears with his faith in our kids. I am reassured that many parents struggle with emotional issues such as depression, anxiety and anger when their children separate from them and grow into adults. I look, as I often do, for answers in Jewish texts and find something that helps me almost as much as therapy.
There is a Hebrew phrase, tzar gidul banim, which means "the pain of raising children" It acknowledges that part of being a parent is to experience emotional anguish and periods of unhappiness, stress, concern and fear about our children. Jewish parenting wisdom suggests that we can do no better than to teach our children what they need to become independent and then put our faith in them, and God, that they will learn from their mistakes and find their true path.
Tzar gidul banim also means that children, as well as parents, must feel pain, discomfort, and distress in order to become fully functioning human beings. As parents, we can not and should not attempt to remove or eradicate all unhappiness, disappointment, failure, or stress from our children's lives. Without those realities, our children will actually be weaker and less prepared to face the world alone. By facing them, they will learn to cope, accommodate, adjust and become stronger and more resilient.
I admit, although not without some embarrassment, that my anxiety about letting go and relinquishing control of my children is based on my fears about what will happen to them when I do. My concerns range from the inane to the existential: Will they wear a jacket in winter and eat a good breakfast? Are they choosing the right courses, spending too much money, developing meaningful friendships? Will college prepare them for life or even for graduate school? Once again, I am comforted by a very powerful, mystical concept in Judaism as I struggle to quiet the inner chatter of my mind.
Tsimtsum means "contraction of the Divine" and is a Kabbalistic term describing the origins of the universe. Jewish mystics believe that originally the entire world was filled up by God and there was not space for anything else to exist. In order for the world to come into being, God had to withdraw some of God's presence to allow creation to occur. But in pulling back, God did not disappear. The Torah is replete with stories that describe God's continuing involvement in the world. They teach us two things: not only did God not withdraw from the world once it was created, but He dwelled close by and provided continuing help and guidance to His creation.
Tsimtsum suggests an appropriate model for parenting adult children: That as parents, we must "contract" our presence in order for our children to become adults. We must withdraw - our opinions, ideas, demands and expectations - and remove ourselves to give them space to create their own realities, pursue their own dreams, falter and make their own mistakes. But we need not remove our support and love and can continue to remain close enough to be there when they need us. The trick as a parent is finding that balance.
Visit Amy's website at www.amyhirshberglederman.com
from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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