Time for parents to say goodbye, and feel the pain

I was looking out the living room window recently, taking stock of the changed landscape of our backyard, and of our lives. There, where the swing set used to be, is now just an empty patch of grass. If you look closely, or maybe this is just my mom imagination, you can still see the outline where it stood for so many years. How many “underdogs” did my husband and I do with our daughter, and then our son?

There, where the trampoline stood, is mulch with weeds poking through. I will never forget the time my son bounced me off the dang thing, in his exuberance to go higher, higher, higher.

But perhaps the emptiest spot is where the playhouse was. Like our house, it was yellow with black shutters. We’d paid a neighbor kid who was a student at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton to build it. It took my husband and three other friends to move it into place. The next day, on her 5th birthday, we tied a scarf around Megan’s eyes, twirled her around a couple of times, and removed the blindfold.

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I did not know that eyes could grow that wide. The playhouse became the scene of so much fun, including Megan’s birthday parties where “Madame Bella” would tell fortunes. (I’d read the “life line,” “love line,” and “money line” on the girls’ palms. All of them were going to live a long life, fall in love with a handsome prince, and make a ton of money. I never had a dissatisfied customer.)

That little girl is 26 years old now, and still we are not used to her absence. The door to her bedroom remains open. On her pillow is her favorite stuffed animal, Peaches. I remember when she first spotted the soft black poodle at age 6, and begged for it. She slept with it every night, and took it to college, its facial features long gone from constant cuddling.

It doesn’t matter how old they are; I still don’t like seeing the back of my kids’ heads, walking away from me. Some sage wrote: “A daughter may outgrow your lap, but never your heart.” Ditto for a son.

It’s that time of year again when parents are saying goodbye to their children. I just had coffee with a friend who is sending her daughter, a recent college grad, off to her first job, in Philadelphia, and her son to his freshman year at UPenn.

Several of my friends are at this stage in their lives. I feel their pain, and I wish I had words of wisdom for them, but what I’m thinking is: I am so sorry. Brace yourself. It really doesn’t get much easier.

At my most melodramatic, I think that the best years of my life — raising children — are gone. How does it get better than that? “Grandchildren,” an older friend replies. In fact, she has a T-shirt that says: “If I’d known that having grandchildren was this much fun, I would have had them first.”

On the other hand, there are plenty of parents, including close relatives of mine, who could not wait for the empty nest. They must have more hobbies than I do.

My friend Trish Karter is the one sending her kids off to Philadelphia. She and her daughter spent a recent day “culling” Eleanna’s room. They found old journals, jewelry, castoff clothes — the flotsam and jetsam of a girl’s life.

Eleanna was eager to toss things; her mom, not so much.

“There is a box of things I said, ‘No, you can’t throw that out,’ ” says Karter, cofounder of Dancing Deer Baking Co. She has decidedly mixed feelings about the empty nest. “It’s what we’ve worked for, to have our kids succeed,” says Karter, who lives in Milton. “But it’s so, so hard.”

Her response has been to keep so, so busy. So she’s launching a new business and concentrating on her passion: bicycle racing.

The experts would say she is doing the right thing. Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist who has written several books on parenting and runs the Hallowell Centers in Sudbury and New York, is naturally concerned about the kids making the difficult transition to college. But he also worries about their parents, who are making their own difficult transition.

“Allow yourself to feel sad about it, don’t fight that,” he says. “But at the same time, take advantage of the freedom to develop deeper friendships, to spend more time in the garden or on that boat or watching that football game.”

Hallowell, who lives in Arlington, takes his own advice. When his oldest child, Lucy, left for college, he opened a new counseling center in New York. When his second, Jack, left, he wrote another book. His youngest, Tucker, has two more years at home. “And I’m already feeling sad about that,” says Hallowell, who no doubt will respond with another book, at least.

Anne Marie Madigan is also a psychiatrist who works with adolescents and adults. Her son Curtis is heading off for his freshman year in college. “I remind parents that it’s a blessing that their kids are able to go, that this is a wonderful gift to be giving them,” says Madigan, who lives in Milton. “But we have to acknowledge that it is a loss, a new stage of life. It’s hard for the kids, and hard for us.”

Madigan gave her son “a wide berth” in getting ready for college, because he was adamant he could do it all himself. “Of course, he waited until the eleventh hour, and all the courses he wanted were full. He was put in an 8 o’clock class, some Baroque art history class focusing on Bernini.

“Sometimes,” she says, “you have to read between the lines and know when you do need to step in.” She did, and the 8 o’clock class on Bernini is, in more ways than one, history.

As for us parents, Madigan knows that we’re unprepared for how painful it can be. Her advice: “Find solace in your friends. It’s important to know that other moms and dads are feeling sad too, to know that you’re not alone and you’re not crazy.”

She agrees that staying busy is therapeutic. As my 20-year-old son, Nick, prepares for his senior year in college, and my daughter prepares to move back to Thailand, I think I will keep busy like Hallowell and write a book. The working title: “There’s No Place Like Home.” It will be dedicated to Megan and Nick.