One minute he’s a baby, the next thing he’s getting on a plane. Ann Donald’s nest gets emptier.
Our son Ryan arrived in our lives in February 1987. Just short of 22 years later, he has left home to start his independent life. My response to this has been, well, unexpected.
To start at the beginning: I have never felt more fear in my life than the hot summer’s day I was left alone at home with Ryan for the first time. He lay on the bed staring up at me. I stared back. The question that was held in suspension between our eyes was, What now? His look was one of enquiry, curiosity; mine of blankness, ignorance. I had been the youngest in my family. I never had contact with babies, didn’t play with dolls. I didn’t know how to change a nappy, never mind how to talk to a child. In that moment, looking down at Ryan’s red face with its shock of black hair, I wanted to cry. I didn’t; I smiled at him and hoped he couldn’t see how scared I was (then he peed in my face, but that’s another story).
For the next 6 months I remained petrified. During that time, I learned the mechanics of caring for a baby, and watched with envy the ease with which my husband, Revel, took to fatherhood. He treated Ryan as he would a puppy – with absolute tenderness but a complete assurance that he was not breakable. Watching him bath his son was to witness delight in action. When no one was watching me I’d sit in the bathroom and cry. I was convinced that my son would sense my ineptitude and hate me for it.
Over the years, Ryan has had many moments to hate me – the healthy kind of hate that comes with teaching a child boundaries. But if he harbours any ill-feelings for my early incompetence as a mother, he hides them well. I still have my fears – undiminished by the birth of our second child, our daughter Andrea – but when they rear up I klap them down, bring out my smile, and take the next step.
It’s what I did when Ryan first told us he was planning to move to Johannesburg after graduating at the end of last year. First I klapped the fear that he wasn’t ready to leave home, then the one that he wouldn’t get a job, then the one that he wouldn’t earn enough to support himself. Behind my smile, my rational self knew that he was more than ready for all of it. It was me that wasn’t ready. And that’s where the unexpected came it.
Without every taking it out and examining it, I’d always had a thought that I’d welcome being child-free again. My rational self had always said I didn’t want my children staying at home forever, that I would encourage them to take responsibility for their own lives. Yet here it was: the time for my son to leave. And all I wanted to do was cry. I didn’t. I smiled at him and hoped he wouldn’t see how scared I was that I’d lose him.
On the day that he left, we rose at 4am. Through our tears and smiles, we hugged him and waved him off. Then we went back to bed. I was up again an hour later, sleep an impossibility. I tried to read – an escape that’s never failed me before. I couldn’t concentrate. Instead I swept the floors, washed the dishes, loaded the washing machine, made a tomato sauce and a pancake batter. Four hours later, I went up to Ryan’s room. I looked at the dirty dishes, the unmade bed, the piles of discarded belongings, and I smiled. Yes, he was more than ready to leave home. More to the point, I was ready for it.
Have you had to adjust to a child leaving home? How did you cope with it?