When Your ‘Baby’ Moves 3,000 Miles Away

Learned last week that my 24-year-old son Ryan will be starting a job with the UK headquarters of a major consumer products company. He’ll have a great salary and benefits, a mentor and a real path for career growth.

Any mom would be proud of this, as I am. But just a small touch of regret is mixed in there, too, and I wonder if any other parents have struggled with this. We work hard to raise independent children, so is it normal to feel conflicted when they are independent enough to settle 3,000 miles away? Do I feel this way because I am Italian, or a Catholic who remembers the biblical story about your children being like olive branches sitting around the table?

I was not surprised that Ryan landed this job. A born problem-solver, Ryan at age 3 figured all by himself that the claw end of a hammer could remove staples from plywood sub-flooring – after watching his father and me struggling with pliers.

“He’s so smart he scares me,” my own dad once said.

After graduating with honors in 2010, Ryan took a year to teach English to second graders in Madrid, then moved to London, where he lives today and works for a large department store. I could sense he was genuinely happy across the pond, but a (very small) part of me hoped that eventually his little European experiment would be over and he’d move back to the U.S. and start his real career here.

But Ryan fell in love with Europe – its worldliness, its de-emphasis on having lots of possessions, its relaxed attitudes towards many things that make Americans uptight. Something told me he would stay there permanently but I didn’t want to believe it.

So last week I learned he had been chosen for a “real job” that would commit him to a training program for at least two years and pretty much guarantee him a job with the company afterwards, most likely in Europe. I knew he wanted this job; I prayed that he’d get it; I had my St. Joseph statue facing out the window towards London (you Catholics will understand what I mean.) When those prayers were answered I felt so very proud.

I went to Ryan’s Facebook page and added my name to the dozens of “likes” and my congratulations to the dozens of comments…all of them sincere and genuinely thrilled for Ryan. And over the past day I’ve been thinking about what this means for me as his mom.

This is not unfamiliar territory. My daughter Rachel, who was always very independent, moved to California a few years ago – 3,000 miles in the other direction. That was a little easier because she was in the same country and just an hour away from her loving grandparents, uncle and aunt…but it was still hard. We keep in touch constantly via texting, email, chat and phone, so I feel connected. Still, I feel a tinge of regret mixed in with overwhelming pride when I see the life she has built for herself; the goals she has reached; the friendships she has made. Each milestone is a reason to celebrate this intelligent, successful, beautiful young woman, and also another pillar in the shiny new life she is building 3,000 miles away.

One of my very favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, once wrote a Mother’s Day column for the New York Times that spoke wistfully about how quickly the years fly.

“Every year, if we do our jobs right,” she wrote, “we move more and more to the sidelines of their lives.”

So now Ryan will live 3,000 miles east of here; Rachel 3,000 miles west.

As I was thinking about this yesterday, my friend Karen O’Neil happened to post this quote from Janell Burley Hofman, who wrote a column called “Ode to Adolescence,” on Facebook. It was if she knew I needed it:

“We are crossing over. You are my baby. But I cannot carry you now. You walk alone into a new world. I want you to linger here, but you constantly push. You will change. You will grow. You will stumble. You will rise. I will be soft and firm. I will guide and step aside. I will lean and I will pull. I will be lost and I will be certain. I will reach for you, and if you do not reach back, know that my heart remembers your heartbeat. And I will always be holding you there.”