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May 29th, 2009
10:00 AM ET

Graduating to adulthood

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog about my daughter when she chose to spend Thanksgiving with a new boyfriend instead of her own family. To say the least, I was pretty upset. It was the first holiday she had been away from home and I went on and on about her decision and how - I felt - her brain just wasn't making the right choices.  I received an enormous  response to that blog– many of the responses came from college students who said I needed to "get a life." Other people, mostly parents, felt I needed to let her go.

A few weeks ago, my wonderful daughter graduated from college. It was a proud moment. Not only for her, but for her father and me. We had journeyed with her as she navigated her collegiate life for four years. It was up and down: changes in courses, majors, roommates and boyfriends. But she made it through, and with very few scars.

When she left home four years ago to attend Syracuse University, I thought it would be a difficult time for me because of separation anxiety and empty nest syndrome. But knowing she was in a campus environment made it easier. Certainly if there were problems, her roommates would call. If I couldn't find her, I could always dial her boyfriend or the dorm's resident assistant. She was never really alone.

But now that she's graduated, that's going to change. Because she is an independent soul and has no intentions of staying close to home, she'll be moving to a different city, where she'll set up a new life, with new friends, and new experiences. And that's freakin' me out.

According to Dr. Charles Raison, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and CNNhealth.com’s mental health expert, the end of college signifies the end of my daughter's "childhood". And because she's my only child, letting go is even more difficult. But if I want to have a healthy relationship with her, letting her live her own life - with little intervention - is necessary.

But it is going to be tough.

No longer will I be able to call her just to check up on her. No more prying, inquiring about grades, friends, activities, etc. Sure, I can ask how she is, but if you think kids are closed-mouth in high school and college, just wait until they strike out on their own. I had a friend whose married daughter called her one day and told her that after five years of bliss she and her husband, my friend's son-in-law, had gotten a divorce. No note, no phone call to mom, until after the ink on the divorce papers was dry and ex-hubby was sent packing. What a shocker for my friend.

Psychologists will also tell you, it's all about control. And I am losing it. Even though she's head strong, our daughter has always listened to us. She may not have done what we asked all the time, but she listened; mostly out of love and respect for her parents. But we also held the purse strings: we paid for her phone, her car insurance, her tuition. Now, as a college grad - hopefully an employed grad - my husband and I will no longer have the financial upper hand. We will now be on a level playing field with her and that's going to take some getting use to. Now if she wants to fly to Paris for the weekend with a new beau, I can't put my foot down. That's her call, not mine - and it's driving me crazy.

Many family counselors point out, no matter how wonderful kids turn out, they never live up to their parents’ expectations. In college you hope they'll make the correct decisions and get it right. My child did, but not the way I thought she would. Did she chose the career path I thought she'd take? No. Did she end up with the boy I liked best? Ah, hardly. Is she pursuing the dreams I dreamed for her? Yes and no.

Child psychologists will say there comes a time when parents need to let go of their dreams for their children and live with the decisions their children make for themselves. That's the biggest part of letting go. And that's not so easy, either. It takes time. Parents can't look back and think “what if…” or “how come...” They need to embrace their children's accomplishments, their children's dreams, and move forward with them, all the while giving them love and support as they venture into a new phase of their lives. Once parents do this, they acknowledge their offspring as adults, not just as their sons or daughters. That's when parents can say they have finally let go.

So congratulations to my lovely daughter and all the young adults who have graduated this year! Here's to their happiness. May they be true to themselves and always have the support of a loving family.

Do you have a child who is graduating from college or high school? Are they going out on their own, joining the service, getting married? How are you adjusting to the idea? We'd like to hear from you.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Elizabeth

    Your blog really hit home. I am the oldest child with a mother who is having issues "letting go", and I graduated college at the end of 2006! The hardest adjustments for her seem to be my decision to abandon Catholicism and my fiancee and my's liberal lifestyle. It's hard when the person you love is a person you probably couldn't stand if you weren't family. As long as no one brings up religion or politics, things seemed to be okay more or less.

    Until I got engaged. Apparently my mom has harbored dreams of a big, white, frilly church wedding for me, but that's just not who I am. The tension between who I am and how I want my wedding compared with who she wants me to be and her idea of my wedding is so much more intense than any control issue that has come up since my first piercing at 17. All of this issues you mentioned above have just exploded. I hope she lets go of her expectations for me and just chills out. As they say, the more you squeeze the sand, the faster it runs out of your fingers.

    May 29, 2009 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sue

    Our children were under our control when they lived at home, and were always decent, respectful, and worked hard in school. We were fortunate that they chose good kids as best friends and have maintained these friendships even today. Once they went away to college, we trusted them to make their own decisions and live with the consequences. We have not been disappointed.
    Our oldest son attended college briefly but decided it wasn't for him. He has a good job as a medical laser clinician which is satisfying and rewarding to him.
    Our second son just graduated from university last Sunday, has an excellent job, and is still with his lovely girlfriend of over a year.
    The youngest, our daughter, has one final semester until graduation. I must admit I was most worried about her because she is very pretty and attended an engineering school. I needn't have feared because to put it in her words, "Geeks and nerds have few social skills, and are often clumsy around women." That may or may not be true, but she has been with her boyfriend over 3 years now, and he has an awesome job as a mechanical engineer.

    Someone once said that your kids turn out well, don't take all the credit, nor accept responsibility if they don't do well. As adults they must find their own way in life: what works for parents won't necessarily work for their offspring. We are very happy to have raised our family, but we are also happy to launch them off on their own now.

    May 30, 2009 at 07:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. claire

    this seems very self centered. You seem way more focused on how your child growing up affects your happiness, rather than hers... why would you blog about being unhappy about your daughters choices in life (ie. boyfriend, etc)? Its not about you!

    May 31, 2009 at 09:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. val

    Claire,
    I never said I was unhappy about her decisions...I just didn't agree with them. Just because I didn't agreee with them, doesn't make me unhappy. It's her life, not mine. I am thrilled for her. And very proud of her as well.

    June 1, 2009 at 14:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Yellow

    I’m in my late twenties but at the age of 18, I sort of adopted my younger cousin. Before I turned 18, I was already feeding him, clothing him, and giving him a place to live. Well he recently graduated high and is going on to college, although he is not my own son I’ve felt like he was. Caring for him since he was about 12 I’ve grown to take the responsibility of him and all his actions. I guess you can say his growing up is leading me in to what life will be like with my own children. He has come so far and has over come a lot and I am more than proud of him and everything he has done. I am more than glad to say I am a happy "parent", and cannot wait to go through this with my own children.

    June 1, 2009 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jennifer

    This article definitely resonates with me, as my parents have consistently used the "financial upperhand" to try to control my older sister and me. It started off with choosing what childhood activities were acceptable or not and continued well into college, as they (unsuccessfully) attempted to influence our majors and extracurricular interests. The quote from another reader about squeezing sand causes it to run faster away is exactly what has happened in our family: my sister ended up dropping out of college after several years of rebellious behavior, and I am currently living on another continent working in a field my father claimed was something I could never possibly be interested or successful in. My financial independence has now allowed me to completely disregard my parents' goals for me, however well-meaning their intentions, and has given me the freedom to pursue a doctorate degree in a field that is of great interest to me. What is interesting to me is how few young men face the same family pressures that women do. My traditional, religious, conservative parents always have stressed how I should only work in lower-paid jobs that allow me to also stay home with a family. My question to the author is: would she have these same concerns if this was her son, and not her daughter?

    June 9, 2009 at 11:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. val

    I obviously did not express myself well in this article. I will worry about my daughter, I will think of her...love her..but it is her life and she needs to live it. Time for me to let go! But I never told her what to do, she always did what she wanted and my husband and I still paid her tuition. A lot of parents would have never given her that option.

    June 15, 2009 at 16:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. BigDaddyMac

    I think Val expressed her story as it pertains to her situation nicely. Everyone who is bashing is just putting their own spin on itto their situation. Plus Val did not give blow by blow details that effect different things in an article. It shows that it is almost always hard for a parent who has nurtured, cared and protected their son or daughter, to let them go and have them live with their own choices and consequences, even if they don't agree. Yes your situation may be different, please share, but don't bash or judge, it was not written as a what would you do or should I have done article, it was her experience about a loving mother and daughter relationship that it allows us to reflect on our own. Thanks for sharing Val.

    October 23, 2012 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Paulene Pashley

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    http://www.cindarkucing.com

    December 3, 2015 at 21:07 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.