Enough about orphaning our children or our children self- orphaning. All metaphor and hyperbole aside, we do have to let go and allow our children to create their own lives. I can only imagine letting go as it was experienced by parents hundreds of years ago, when adventurous children embarked for distant lands, possibly never to be seen again, and to be heard from rarely, at best. Today as well, parents can have much bigger challenges than seeing a child move across the country to get a college education. There is still the possibility of a child emigrating to some distant location, an eventuality eased, but not completely erased, by the availability of email and Skype. When children join the military instead of going to college, a parent has to cope with a much different and more worrisome range of dangers.
The fact that children are self-like can make separation painful, but it can also help ease the pain of separation. Ifyou identify strongly with the child who adventurously embarks for some place far away, some of the child’s thrills will be yours as well, at least vicariously. I hope it was with this sort of identification that my grandparents watched my father leave Istanbul for America in the late 1940s, so he could study physics at the University of Wisconsin. With strong identification, his parents would have experienced his widening horizons as their own widening horizons. No doubt it grew harder when he decided to stay in the United States for graduate school, and harder still when he married and got a job here. Nevertheless, identification can help us let go instead of holding tight.
My own parents opted for identification, not vice-grip possession, when they let me take all sorts of risks as a teenager—including hiking in the Alps and bicycling all over England and Scotland with my younger brother. And as my own kids get older and demand more freedom, it strikes me that what makes it possible for me to relinquish control is not only respecting their autonomy—certainly a necessity, if you want your child to live a good life—but identifying with them. It’s partly because I identify that I want them to experience the exhilaration of the open road, the late-night party, the unknown.
Whether your child is spreading her wings in a college environment, on a battlefield, or in other new territory, it’s gratifying to see her do so, far beyond what it would be if she were just anyone’s child, and not your own. But then—let’s be honest—there is also particularly excruciating pain when things do not go well, and a child is too distant and too independent to be helped, let alone if our worst fears come true and we lose our children to one of the many things that can shorten life. There is no getting away from the fact that the unique connection we have to our children opens us to profound pleasures, but also to profound dismay and loss.
With the right effort and attitude, perhaps we can have children who are merely willing to defy, debunk, and disappoint. No parent can be anything but saddened by a child who feels obligated to actually “self-orphan.” But even with the best of intentions all around, separation is always a possibility, considering that a child is a second self—but separate.