Dear Mr. Dad: Our daughter is going away to college. On one hand, I'm thrilled that she's becoming so independent. But we've always been very close and I'm worried that our relationship will suffer. Will it?
A: Well, the day you've hoped for and dreaded is finally here. Your child is going to move out. Some researchers have called this the beginning of the “post-parental stage,” but I think that's a mistake. Yes, your child is leaving, but that doesn't mean you're going to stop being a parent. In fact, you're just getting started on the longest phase of your fathering experience.
You're going to miss her, and it'll probably take you some time to adjust to your newly empty nest (unless you're in what Craig Roberts and Kaye Zuengler call the “quasi-postparental stage,” which is when you've launched some but not all of your children). It'll also take you some time to get used to your new relationship with your child and with your partner. Since you and your daughter were close, it may be hard to adjust to her gone. For those who weren't around that much, having her leave home might be even harder because it's unlikely that they’ll ever be able to develop that close a relationship.
Overall, having your child leave home will be a good thing for you. “With departure of the offspring, fathers worry less about their children's welfare and their own finances,” write Roberts and Zuengler. “In most cases, both fathers and mothers recognize the post-parental period as a time of relative freedom from worry and responsibilities.”
As in every other stage of your child's development, her struggle for independence is central. But there's a difference between independence at this stage and independence at any other stage. One of the biggest changes in your relationship with your child is that the relationship itself has gone from involuntary to voluntary; while she was living under your roof, your child had to live by your rules, and she had to have contact with you, whether she wanted to or not. Now she doesn't. Interestingly, once your child has successfully proven to herself that she doesn't need you, she may feel that it's safe to turn to you for advice again.
Before, no matter what happened, she could always come home and be dependent again — eat your food, sleep in your house, drive your car, use your Internet connection, and so on. But now she's on her own. Now she has unlimited opportunity to improvise, and she has to actually take care of herself. Sure, you'll be there to catch her if she really falls, but she knows that it's time to start taking responsibility. And that can be one heck of a scary thought.
Ideally, your relationship should gradually evolve from a hierarchical, parent-child one to something more adult. (But keep in mind that some aspect of the parent-child dynamic won't ever change. No matter how much like peers you treat each other, you'll probably never take your child out for a beer and talk about sex — and you shouldn't. It's also going to be a long time before she gives you as much help as you give her.) Watching your child stretch her wings and take her place in the world can be a wonderfully rewarding thing. Developing a genuine friendship with her and being open to learning things from her can be even more wonderful, says psychologist Mary Lamia.
Not everyone can do this, though. Some midlife dads come down with what researchers Bryan Robinson and Robert Barret call “post-parental distress syndrome.” Symptoms include an inability to acknowledge that the parent-child relationship has to change and feeling powerless and not needed in the marriage-often because the breadwinner role isn't as important as it used to be. “Husbands experiencing such discomfort typically shift from alarm to anger and entreat their wives and children to come back by promising gifts,” write Robinson and Barret. “The successful midlife father accepts his children's separateness and individuality but maintains regular contact with them.”
Remember how you used to complain that your teenager never lifted a finger around the house? Well, you may end up eating those words once she's gone and you're left with taking out the garbage, making meals, cleaning the bathrooms, washing dishes, running errands, and all the other chores you never noticed that she was doing. And finally, get ready for another shocker when your child gets married. All of a sudden, you'll find yourself bumped out of closest-relative status, replaced by the child's spouse.
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