Monday, May 28, 2012

Bittersweet: Youngest Child Graduates

It's a big week for our family as our youngest daughter graduates from high school, ending an era of family life for us. Childhood transitions to adulthood, and the daily part of parenting will change for my husband and I. Over the summer months,our youngest and last daughter will prepare to head off to live in the dorms at college. It seems I got used to the rhythm of family life, and keeping up with the kids was a huge part of my life for the last 22 years. When the first two children went to college, we missed them, but the daily job of parenting, mealtimes, and curfew monitoring continued here on the home front.

When I talk with our daughter, her friends, and my patients that are graduating from high school or college over the next few weeks, it seems that most are feeling some mixed feelings. They are relieved to be finished with papers, finals, and deadlines. They are also worried about finding jobs, how they will do in the next chapter in their lives, and whatever comes next. They worry about leaving friends, and starting over making new ones. They can feel a mix of fear, excitement, pride, happiness, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and sadness. Theirs is a loss wrapped up inside every graduation: a death of one chapter as a new one is birthed.

The family life cycle helps us understand that entrances and exits are challenges for families.We do well with homeostasis, having a set point for what is normal. When there is a family member joining, through a birth, a marriage, an adoption, or otherwise adding a new person, it takes 3 to 6 months for the adjustment, sometimes longer. Similarly, when a family member exits, whether to go to college, live on their own, separate, divorce, or pass away, it can be hard on a family, and takes some time to find a new rhythm.

"What's next?" is a question we get all our lives. We can eagerly be pursuing a goal, and then when we achieve it, feel a pang of sadness. It's bittersweet to achieve a goal, sweet because you got to completion, but sad because a gap opens where you have to define a new goal, and begin again.

So hug your graduate. Support them. Be there for them as the end one phase of their life, and anticipate trying to find their way in the next one. Don't ask "What's next?,"as they are probably grappling with that question themselves. Transitioning from one phase of life to another is stressful. It can even be hard on Mom and Dad.

Fortunately for us, even though the youngest is heading to college, the golden retrievers aren't moving out anytime soon.

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