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Fathering after the kids leave

Posted on: June 14th, 2014 by Robert Stains Jr. MEd.

I was OK as I drove out of the University of Miami parking lot and watched my youngest child wave goodbye to me in the rear-view mirror. She was the last child to leave the nest. A few tears, yeah, but not the total breakdown that I’d expected. That didn’t happen until I got home.


Bob with his daughter Beccah as a child

I wandered from room to room feeling unmoored. I sat on Beccah’s bed with my head in my hands, swimming in grief. I missed her terribly. I also felt a creeping sense of fear that I would no longer be needed and if that was true, that I might not be wanted either. If I wasn’t fathering by coaching little league baseball (OK, OK: assistant coaching….), chauffeuring kids to events, advocating with teachers and cooking meals, what fathering was there to be done? What place would there be for me? What if my kids “cut the ties” as swiftly and absolutely as I had when I left home? Sometimes those thoughts and feelings swell like a tidal wave, washing away the memories of a happy past as well as the ability to imagine a loving future. There’s so much more to be embraced, both in the past and in the days to come. In the four years that I’ve had to adjust to my children’s absence from the house, I’ve learned some things:

  • I’ll always be a father. It’s up to me to shape that fathering to the evolving needs, personalities and preferences of my kids.
  • I can’t do that unless I’m in conversation with them about our relationship. It’s easy to let this go as time goes on.
  • Knowing when to keep my mouth shut is as important as knowing when to speak. Not exactly breaking news, but more salient now.
  • My role has shifted from initiating, teaching and “doing” to being present, receiving and supporting. (And, yes, offering advice when I can sneak it in.)
  • The past is not dead. The small things we did as a family –the dinners together, the spontaneous trips to the ice cream stand, the TV shows watched, the pots banged with wooden spoons in the kitchen, conversations at table and in the car- all these things and more formed a foundation of caring that is very much alive in all of us.
  • My children have been dealing with this change as well, wrestling with questions like, “How can I stay connected and build my own life? What kind of relationship can I/should I have with Dad now?”
  • We are fashioning relationships among adults. I am learning a great deal from my children’s deepening knowledge and wisdom.

Their independence affords new opportunities for my wife and I as we discover the possibilities that freedom from day-to-day responsibilities brings. Finally, one of the big benefits of separation especially relevant to family dinners (which I prepared) is summed up by my daughter Beccah reflecting on her transition to college: “I lost weight from not eating pasta, apple pie, brownies, strawberry shortcake and steak every week.”

It’s a new world, and a fine one. Yes, I miss a lot. But I’ve gained a lot too, am discovering that I’m still “Dad” and that all of us have new gifts to bring each other as we age. I just need eyes to see them. Image via