I remember when my first two kids graduated from high school, and Smart Guy and I were told by extended family members that high school graduation “wasn’t really that big of a deal.” It wasn’t something that cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents fly in for, or really even celebrate. There were no cards, no gifts sent. At first I was disappointed, but eventually I accepted that idea, and figured maybe it was just an immediate family only thing— something you celebrate at home, with friends who also have kids graduating, or who have spent a lot of time with you and your kids. At the time, that made sense.
My Mom lived here at the time, so she attended Principessa’s graduation from High School. Papa flew in for Middle Man’s graduation. Grandma had died jut a few months before, and it was his first visit to see us, on his own, and was perfect timing for Middle Man’s graduation. Other than that, it was pretty low-key. We had an open house for our girl, but the boy didn’t want one. His classmates were in Canada; it would have been hard to pull off. There were special dinners together, gifts from us to them, and we all felt excited and anticipatory about the next phase. But there was little hoo-ha from the rest of our clan, and I figured maybe it wasn’t really as big as it felt to me.
Two High School and one College graduation later, and I see things a little differently. High school is a much bigger deal than some people realize— until they’re in the moment. High School graduation is the end of a lot of things, and the start of so many others.
It’s the end of your child’s time in schools that you (the parent) know, that you have been a part of too. It’s the end of a time when you know their teachers and the place they go each day. It’s the end of a time when you are invited in, to volunteer and be included. You have probably walked the halls, and met most of the people your children spend their days with, and there’s comfort in that. You’ve had your fingers on the pulse of their lives; and, there’s also comfort in knowing that you are part of your children’s world, in an intrinsic and crucial way. When they graduate from high school, that phase of their lives, and your’s, changes, forever. That is the part I really didn’t get, when we were going through it the first time(s).
However, the next four years will bring changes so much bigger than the previous 12 years, that your head will spin! I thought I knew that going in, so will you. But, until you wake up four years later and face another graduation, it’s nearly impossible to understand just how different things will be. That may not seem to make sense: 12 years versus 4, but the four years after high school, the four years of college (if that’s the path your child takes) will take your child out into a world that you’re not really part of. You’ve raised your child (children) to go out there and set the world on fire, whatever that looks like to your child, but it’s hard to imagine that they really wont need to hold your hand anymore in that world. You wont be invited to roast marshmallows around that fire, and it isn’t your job to make sure the flames are tended, any more. It’s their fire.
They will, from time to time, reach for your hand, but they won’t rely on you the way they once did. They’ll be forging a new path, and you need to step aside a little and let them fly. As my daughter graduated, I was caught up in the fact that my first baby was finishing school here, and would be moving 4,000 miles across the country to start college. The idea that she would be so far away, not living in our home anymore, was what seemed central at the time. I hadn’t begun to imagine what was next, and I’ve since learned that the “next” is what really matters. High School is the culmination of twelve years of schooling, again, where you are tied to your children on a daily basis. That phase started with walking hand in hand in to meet the teacher. The new phase will begin with watching them drive away, or taking them to their new dorm, and driving away from them. Even if you know you’ll see them, even if they’re going to school close by, that drive is one of the hardest rides of your life.
So how do you get through it? With a wish and a prayer. With lots of humor. With some distance: if you can’t step back from some things, you’ll be pulling your hair out. By taking a look inside—yourself. Yes, you raised your child to set the world on fire, but you don’t get to choose the fires. You don’t get to call the shots. If your child’s going to surf their own waves, you need to watch from the shore and cheer. You don’t get to surf too. You get through it by accepting that your lives have changed, and that you can’t go back. Doesn’t that all sound so practical? Doesn’t it seem like common sense? That doesn’t mean that it will feel easy or reasonable when you’re in it. If you’ve been a Mom for 18 years, none of it will feel easy or clear.
For the first time in your child’s life, you wont know where they are each night. You will have to adjust to sleeping in your own bed, not sure if they are tucked in and safe in theirs. They are. You will not know what they are eating each night, or if they had a good breakfast before class. You wont know if they went to class. No one will call you if they miss that class, or if they eat a cheeseburger for every meal. You wont know what’s happening, unless they tell you… and they may not tell you everything. It’s the first time in their lives that they get to try things on and figure things out, without running to Mom and Dad, and that feels good. Trust me, they will be having moments of uncertainty too. But they will be excited to figure it out on their own.
You have some things to figure out too… you just don’t know it yet. It will build and wiggle around in your brain, until your final bird flies… then you’ll know that there are indeed things to figure out, that are about you, not them… Your face, looks back from the mirror, so differently than it did when this ride began. It’s all tied up in a complex tangle of years of kindergarten to high school, and favorite waffles. Of trips to the zoo, first play dates, and first sleep overs. It’s tied up in careers you left, or careers you kept. Marriages that have aged while babies grew, or marriages that ended. It’s woven to first crushes, proms and Homecomings, broken hearts (yours, theirs). How handsome or beautiful they looked in countless moments along the way. It’s tied to their innocent promises to never grow up and your hope that that might be possible. Knotted up in their sweet smells and their big stinky sneakers. The stuff left here and there and all over your house, and now gone.
Graduation from High School is the shift from everything that you’ve known, to everything that will come after– for you and for your children. There’s no way to know what the years after High School will bring, but it’s the beginning of an entirely new phase of life. So, as you approach graduation day, and the blur of a summer that follows, savor it. Enjoy it. In the weeks before they leave, find— no carve out– sacred moments when you are all a family. Enjoy those simple, ordinary moments. Your kids will have one foot out the door; it’s what they do. They’ll make it look like their friends are more important, and that you are so in the way. They will likely you make you wish they were gone. Really; it happens. Let it slide; shake it off; but, find those moments. Cherish them, the moments and the kids. Both will be gone before you blink.
When summer ends, they will pack their things and leave your home, and they will never come back as the child you watch leave. They’ll come home and sleep in their room; they’ll call to share some of what’s happening in their lives (especially in the beginning), but they wont be the kid that walks up to get that diploma. They wont be the same kid who leaves in September. They’re on their way to being on their own… to growing up. Leaving High School, leaving your home, is their first step… and they’ve worked hard to get there. Smile, pat yourself on the back and know that you raised an independent young adult. You did your job. And then buckle your seat belt; the next four years will be an incredible ride.
Is your child graduating? Share your thoughts. Are you miles from this moment? Then file this away; you’ll need it later.
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