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I loved raising a teenager. But I had no idea it would be so hard when he left

I don't regret having an only child, but I'm heartbroken that this part of my life is ending.
collage of Tanya Gibson with her son in an old photo next to a present day photo
I found my son's younger days taxing and tedious, but raising a teenager was glorious. And now that it's almost over, I'm heartbroken.TODAY Illustration / Courtesy Tawnya Gibson / Finnegan Twohig

I watched him, my only child, over the course of a week go through every item in his room. One by one, the trappings of childhood went into donation boxes, recycling bins and the trash. I opened my mouth several times, only to shut it before sound came out. I reminded myself it was not my place to say anything. It was my job to simply ask the questions I’d been asking him every time we sorted his room for the entirety of his life: Keep it in your room, store it in the garage for later, or get rid of it? I didn’t want to place my sentimentality onto his possessions. I didn’t want to put the burden onto him of cushioning that blow to me of getting rid of stuffies and that ceramic pot he made when he was first learning to throw clay. I needed to break that cycle of keeping things just for others. He simply needed my support. I simply needed to set my feelings aside and give it.

At the end of the week, his room looked exactly like we were moving out, complete with nail and screw holes that needed to be filled and patchy paint above the closet door that was peeling off from LED light strips. It seemed his worldly possessions were cut more than in half and I wasn’t quite prepared for the empty and hollow feeling both in his room and in my chest. That feeling? No one tells you that it feels just like a breakup. A slow-motion moving on. A fracturing of the family that I cannot stop even when it is none of those things. I teared up but averted my eyes and busied myself as he made several trips to the garage, arms full of yesterday’s treasures.

old photo of Tawnya Gibson and her son
As a mom, the toddler years were hard on me. Courtesy Tawnya Gibson

Raising a teen was my favorite part of parenthood. I should say “so far” at the end of that sentence, but I can’t quite picture what’s to come. I’m too in the thick of him leaving. I found the younger days taxing and tedious, blending endlessly in a sea of "Curious George" and Hot Wheels and bodily fluids and too few naps (mine) and too many tears (also mine). Never good at play, I longed for the days when I could talk to my child coherently instead of the petty squabbling lobbed toward him over uneaten lunches and too much screen time, which I almost always foisted onto him to carve just a few minutes for myself. I relished, almost daily, that I only had to do all of this once. One time through potty training. One time through tantrums in the grocery store. One time through night terrors and separation anxiety. During those days, I wanted time to hurry up. Skip to the part where I had a person who could talk in robust sentences and drive himself and, then … well, nothing. I honestly never imagined how short those years would be and never once imagined a life beyond his high school days. 

You realize you’ve grown a human with opinions and thoughts and dreams and plans of their own. But then you realize those plans are the same plans that months from now will cut short your teen utopia and signal an end to everything you’ve grown to love.

And then, we did skip to that part, and raising my teen was glorious. I didn’t find belligerent behavior or a sullen child who wouldn’t talk. Instead, I had a concert buddy and long Saturdays binging YouTube while laughing ourselves hoarse. Even the times of growth where choices and behaviors felt loaded were welcomed over missed naps and playground bullies. Together as a family, we navigated narcissistic pseudo-friends and girls who pushed too much and broken hearts and taking giant steps toward independence. In raising my teen I found myself saying things like “Do you think King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard is really just trolling the entire world?” and ending up having an hour-long conversation about the musical stylings of Australia’s finest and in the middle of it realizing you’ve grown a human with opinions and thoughts and dreams and plans of their own. But then you realize those plans are the same plans that months from now will cut short your teen utopia and signal an end to everything you’ve grown to love and that hollow feeling in your chest tightens and you wonder, not for the last time, why no one adequately prepares you for this part. Book upon book about the first several years. So few about the last. Is it just too painful to talk about properly? Did I just not listen? Why aren’t they being written?

Being the parent of an only, I’m realizing that while you remember and openly share all of the “last times” you are grateful to leave behind, you often forget you also get only one time through the things you want to hold onto longer, like first concerts and first cars and when they finally find a passion, and then it’s your only shot for graduation where, after, you have a suddenly empty nest. Where there’s an only child, there is no dress rehearsal. You get one shot at everything: good, bad, milestone or mundane.  And when you out-of-the-blue remember, that pain that feels like a breakup makes you wince. 

family photo
My son is graduating high school and moving on, and I didn't know it would be this painful.Courtesy Tawnya Gibson

Last fall, I pulled out my credit card and placed an order for a cap and gown in beautiful burgundy and gold. I showed him my tassel, silver and blue with an attached ’92 charm. Told him that was what he would want to hold on to as we sorted the options to order.  When we were done, my confirmation email slipped into my inbox.  I filed it away, now long buried under reservations and book pre-sale orders. I thought in burying it I could ignore and forget about it, but suddenly here we are, one calendar turn away from the big day.  And as the days begin to warm, just a little, his being done with school is ramping up and reminding me all the time how quickly days are flying. The only thing that keeps me from falling completely apart is trying to remember how I felt around my graduation.  Never once giving my parents’ feelings a second thought, I left and never looked back.

That is the cruelest twist of parenting. If you prepare them — if you raise them to be excited for the future, to know they always have a place to fall, to be independent, to think for themselves, it doesn’t really matter how tightly you squeeze.

It was because I never looked back and because I ran so far away that I hold tightly where my mother didn’t. Or couldn’t. Neither way right nor wrong, we each have our different motherhood journeys, but still. I squeeze. Thinking if I hold fast he won’t run as far as I did. I know it’s an illusion and, because I’ve done my job, he’s ready and easily stepping out and over the squeeze. But that right there is the cruelest twist of parenting. If you prepare them — if you raise them to be excited for the future, to know they always have a place to fall, to be independent, to think for themselves, it doesn’t really matter how tightly you squeeze. It’s ultimately an illusion just for you, to think you’re still wanted. Needed. Important. The slow-motion moving on accelerates whether you’re prepared or anyone warned you or not.

Tawnya Gibson and her son
Soon I'll have an empty nest, and that's hitting me hard.Courtesy Tawnya Gibson

As I write this, we’re just a couple weeks away from graduation and I can’t see past his cap and gown, somehow. I can’t focus on what’s next. I remind myself that I couldn’t always see life past 40, either, or past his baby stage or past my own graduation and I made it to the other side of those. I remind myself that I’m not the first to live through this and I won’t be the last. I remind myself that this summer we’ll paint his room and get it ready for when he comes home. I remind myself that he will go and have an amazing life and, unlike the slow-motion breakup it feels like, the hollow in my chest will fill and he’ll always come back. 

But for now, I don’t believe it. For now, I cry that he was 5 and beginning kindergarten just last week and almost convince myself those toddler years weren’t all that bad and Google how to cope. For now, I question every decision I’ve ever made and I wonder at the turns that led me here. I don’t regret having an only child. It was the right decision for us for many reasons. But right at this moment, I feel a little jealous of others who can focus their energy on the next school year instead of that hollow feeling in my chest that will soon be hugging me goodbye.