When it’s Graduation Day and Your Senior isn’t Graduating

This week I have been watching my friends’ social media feeds as they celebrate graduation day with their 2020 seniors. Happy pictures of families celebrating their kids at their remote graduations. Our local high school had a drive through graduation with families decorating their cars. I am happy for them in their joy, and love seeing announcements of where the graduates are heading for college next year. Yet it is bittersweet because I am grieving. I wanted that experience of celebrating with my child. She didn’t tell us she wasn’t receiving her diploma until two days before. And she told us she would not be participating in the drive through ceremony so we shouldn’t come. This morning I saw pictures on social media of her and her boyfriend at the drive through graduation. It hurts that I could not be part of it. It hurts that she didn’t finish her requirements for graduation. It hurts that she abandoned home life months ago.

Last November she turned 18. I had been excited to celebrate her big day. Saturday she spent the whole day running here and there with friends and had a late party with a large group of teens at a friend’s community building. Sunday evening, on her actual birthday, we had a big family party with all the local relatives. We spent much of the day preparing food, and I thought it was a fun occasion for her. She seemed happy. She watched TV with me that night and I told her I loved her, was proud of her, and apologized for all my parenting mistakes over the years.

Monday she didn’t come home from school. I wasn’t initially shocked, since she frequently didn’t tell me when she had plans. But she messaged me an hour later and announced she didn’t live here anymore. My heart dropped and broke into a million pieces. Moments after her text, I opened the fridge, and saw half a giant rainbow birthday cake with happy lettering, spelling out her name. I folded the laundry and her clothes were mixed in among the others. I took her clothes down to her room and saw 40 library books lining her bookshelf. Who decided that turning 18 magically makes one an ‘adult’?

I had no desire to do anything. My house was messy, I didn’t want to make dinner. I didn’t want to read a book. I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I just wanted to talk to my baby. I wanted something to make sense. It was hard to put on a smile when the other kids come home. I felt like I have maybe never been a good mother, that maybe they all hated me and couldn’t wait to leave me. I felt like nothing I had ever done was good.

It was hard to look at the other little faces without seeing hers. It was hard to coach them through math worksheets, reading practice, and bath time and not remember there is a body missing from the dinner table, a face I don’t get to wake for school in the morning or greet returning home.

My baby removed herself from our home secretly and still will not even talk to me about it. I was so blindsided. I felt completely devastated. I cried and cried for weeks. My eyes itchy and puffy, my face splotchy, my throat sore, my head ached, I felt empty inside. When I had time alone, I have never heard such inhuman moans coming from my own throat.

I wanted a strong independent daughter. But I still wanted to be part of her life.

For over a year, I’ve been learning about thought work and trying to confront my own unhealthy thought patterns, especially surrounding relationships. As part of this I am trying to become aware of my own ‘scripts’, my thoughts about how people in my life are supposed to behave. For instance, my children are supposed to be clean, obedient, and affectionate, right? My parents should love me unconditionally, be supportive, and understanding, right? And my husband should be not only hardworking and loyal, but also romantic, handsome, and enchanted by me, right? It starts to sound pretty fantastical the more I let myself elaborate on how everyone else should behave. After admitting I have these fantasies running my thoughts, I try to question those emotional stories and let my rational mind take over. When I am in my rational mind, I can recognize that everyone else is their own person with their own motivations and preferences and that I am just not as big a player in their life as I’d like to think.

When I am successful at handing things off to my rational mind, I can see that my scripts are only harming my relationships. When I believe the script, on some level I believe something is wrong with my loved ones and I am trying to control them and make them fit the expectations of my story. So, I had this story about my daughter. I watched this beautiful, vibrant, intelligent child grow. I did my best as a mother and thought she was going to do all the things… like stay interested in school, make straight A’s, choose an exciting career path, get a scholarship, and head off to college to start her journey into adulthood. That wasn’t the right story for my child. Her story was that she lost interest in school and family life. She didn’t want to be told when to sleep or eat or study. She wanted to love on her friends and sing and play. She is fighting her own battles with her own demons. She is still figuring out where her story is going and who gets to be a part of it.

Part of the lie in my story was that I was entitled to anything. I thought as a mother I was entitled to a lot of things. I thought I was entitled to a lot of “thank you’s” for my contributions, that I was entitled to have some kind of input in her life plan, that I was entitled to know where she was and what she was doing. I thought I was entitled to be at graduation and in her pictures and participate in the proud picture sharing. She is teaching me that I am wrong about all of that. Turns out I am not entitled to anything. This has been a very hard lesson for me. It has caused me a lot of sleepless nights as I resisted and struggled to know and acquire the information I wasn’t going to get. Another lie in my story was that my value as a woman and mother depended on the choices and outcomes of my children. Unfortunately, church teachings have contributed to some of these false ideas about what makes a worthy mother.

I am a slow learner, but I am hoping at some point the worry will fade away, and that sleep will come more easily.  I hope when I see her she will want to share more of her life with me. I hope at some point this will make me a better mother. I hope I will be able to see more clearly where the child begins and I end. I hope that I will be more comfortable with not knowing and let go completely of the “should be” stories. I hope I can be a better parent to the children still here. I hope I won’t make all the stories about me and about whether I am good enough. I hope I can completely let go of the judgement that comes from having stories about how other people should be; that I can love people wholly and see who they are and help them know they are seen and loved.



Chiaroscuro is a play of light and shadow. Finding noisy messy lovely life in all the shades between.

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8 Responses

  1. Abby Hansen says:

    I have learned that kids often do what they’re going to do, no matter what you’ve done as a parent. This same thing could easily happen to any of us at some point. It sucks, and I’m so sorry you’ve had this happen. I hope things change for the better sooner rather than later.

  2. Wendy says:

    Oh chiaroscuro my heart aches for you. And I’m in awe of your ability to let go and love your daughter unconditionally from afar. She’s fortunate to have a parent who’s willing to look inward at such a painful time. Sending you all my love as you weather this journey with her. ❤️

  3. Allemande Left says:

    My brother moved out as soon as he turned 18, in the middle of his senior year in HS. I was a freshman at the time. What a strange year for us. I empathize with you.
    He needed space. Several years later everything normalized. Now almost 45 years later he is the strongest supporter of our mother’s legacy.
    You are doing “soul work.” It’s hard to face certain aspects of ourselves and you are doing it.

  4. Heather says:

    Oh mama. You are so right. We are NOT entitled to any expectations of love or gratitude. But that doesn’t make it easier to deal with a child who pushes you away. Especially when you’ve stayed home full time and wrapped so much identity into being a mom, to have a child dismiss us is devastating.

  5. LMA says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I think the hard, hard work you are doing to understand yourself and your situation is holy and brave. Sending so much love and comfort to you.

  6. ElleK says:

    My heart breaks with yours. Thank you for this raw and vulnerable post.

  7. Anon says:

    I had a similar situation with one of my daughters, and I’d like to share with you what my wise sister told me (and my sister is always right, so we’re both in good hands!) :

    You are doing sacred work. Waiting and loving and accepting and respecting your daughter’s boundaries are beautiful and holy efforts. Yes, it hurts like hell. It is hell, in a way. But what you are doing for her, by letting her go- as long as she knows that you will be there for her with open arms and listening ears whenever she decides to return- is the most loving and kind thing a mother can do in this situation. And when she takes baby steps back toward you, your non-judgmental and respectful acceptance will reinforce for her how much you really did love her all along. You’ve given her a safe haven to come back to, and that will make all the difference. She feels a need for space right now, and you are giving it to her. That’s not a small thing!

    Your daughter is also doing sacred work. It may not be pretty, it may not look like anything you would have previously considered a successful transition to adulthood. But just as you said, it is her path, not anyone else’s, and she’s working on it the best way she knows how. And her journey is beautiful and important. She is precious, and she is safe in God’s hands. Even if she goes through some really rough patches, she is eternally safe. God understands her and her motivations.

    My daughter came back into my life, and our adult friendship is more valuable and important to both of us than what we could have achieved if she had tried to continue being “my little girl” for any longer. We had been very close prior to her leaving, and her desire to please me had become a huge blockade in her life. By her leaving and my waiting, we eventually came to a true sisterhood. We both learned how strong she was underneath that people-pleasing facade she had been wearing. I know that some other people look at her and see a prodigal daughter. I look at her and see an amazing, strong, brave soul, who shines like the sun peeking through the clouds.

    I wish the same reconciliation and relief for you and for every parent who is in the same situation. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” I pray that morning will come soon for you and your family.

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