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When your child soils the nest, just before leaving it

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It’s that time of year again. Young adults who have recently graduated from high school are venturing into the world. I get it, as my oldest child graduated from high school last year. I vacillated between being irritated by him/looking forward to his leaving and adoring him/being excited for his next adventure/feeling a little sad that he was going. During that pre-launch period, he returned from a four-day youth group convention out of town. It was just starting to snow and I was cooking delicious treats, looking forward to being snowed in with my family.

“I’m going to spend the night at my friend’s house,” he announced, “I haven’t seen my buddies in five days.”

“Okaaay, but you’re going to spend three months with them,” I reminded him. His school holds graduation in February, then students spend three months in Israel. I had hoped he would want to spend some time with us before the trip, and then felt a little pathetic, like a dog waiting for scraps of attention. I had a brief pity party and then I remembered what it’s like to be 17. I preferred my friends’ company to my family’s for a long time. My son had clearly crossed the line of wanting to be with his friends more than with his family. I knew it was normal and appropriate, but sometimes it bugged me. How could he not want to be with us? Weren’t we as awesome as we thought we are? I also was annoyed by his occasional intolerance of my benign inquiries, such as “what are your plans for the day?” I am an awful, intrusive mother — obviously.

I was venting to my sister about my mixed emotions. “Sounds like he’s soiling the nest,” she said.

Precisely. I had heard about this phenomenon and was experiencing it first-hand. He was not literally soiling our home. Psychologists say graduating seniors may struggle with vulnerability and self-doubt about their readiness to fling themselves into the daunting unknowns of the next stage of life.  They cannot directly confront their sadness about saying good-bye to the familiar “knowns” of childhood. How can they take flight if they are weighed down by emotional burdens? Better to fling off all that and fixate only on enhancing the good riddance tone of their good-byes. Better yet, why not soil the nest on the way out, making it easier for us to bid them a “good-riddance to you, too”?  The more toxic and messy they are, the easier it will be to transition to the next phase — for them, and for us.  I know we had a fairly mild case of nest soiling. My son was not toxic or even particularly messy. He was generally sweet and thoughtful. But I was kind of glad when he left. The waiting period and anticipation were hard. Ripping the bandage off seemed the better way to go.

The parties were over and the important talks had been had, with an emphasis on “Don’t do anything to embarrass yourself, your family or your school.” Let’s face it — it was about him, but it was also about us — the parents. There was no big to-do or send-off as we crossed the line of this next milestone in the life of our family.

There were initial inquiries from his siblings about the use of his empty bedroom, but for now his nest is intact. At least until what’s-his-name comes back.

Stillman lives in suburban D.C. with her husband, four children and dog. She is a former social worker who now blogs at Let Me Tell You Something…

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