As loving parents, we do things to show our children that there’s no place like home. They still grow up and leave. For the child, that milestone opens the door to freedom. For the parent, that milestone empties the nest. This calls for a ritual.
Imagine that you’re a parent and your child is leaving home for college, or for a job, a physical adventure, or a journey of the heart. You’ve equipped your son or daughter with all the necessities of a well-appointed dorm room. You’ve packed favorite snacks. You’ve supplied for-emergencies-only cash and you’ve dispensed sage advice. You’re excited to see your child on the verge of a grand adventure. This is a milestone in your young adult’s life and in your own. Yet the grand idea feels empty. What’s missing? A ritual.
In case the whole concept of ritual is new to you, let me say two things:
- The way I see it, ritual is a visible act performed with invisible intent.
- If you’ve ever made a wish and blown out the candles on a birthday cake, you’ve performed a ritual. It can be that simple.
There are different kinds of rituals. Some, like weddings and funerals and having children, are rites of passage. They mark unmistakable before and after points in our lives.
Some rituals are designed to support through times of traumatic change or loss. Examples include going through a divorce, or getting out of prison, or losing a home in a natural disaster.
Some rituals celebrate the change of seasons. Those rituals align us with the cycles of nature, and connect us with the spirit of our ancestors.
If you ever questioned the importance of rituals, think about what the 2020 high school graduates missed last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic: no class trip, no prom, no graduation ceremony, no graduation parties. My grandson, Logan, and hundreds of thousands of fellow seniors across the world, missed all that.
His summer job was canceled. He was to be a manager at a large boy scout camp, having attended every summer since he was a cub scout. Last year, he achieved the rank of eagle scout. The ceremony was canceled. As a college freshman, he looked forward to meeting new people on campus. Instead, he stayed at home and is taking classes online. This last year hasn’t been easy on him. Or on any of the other 2020 grads.
Here it is, April of 2021. My daughter just told me that the court of honor to bestow the rank of eagle scout on Logan and two other young men will be held next month. A real, in-person ceremony. Yes, attendance will be somewhat limited and masks still required. That’s okay. By then, everyone in my family will have had both vaccines and will have passed the waiting window for the vaccine’s magic to take effect.
Spring is a time when energy speeds up. No surprise, after a year of Covid confinement, our grandson is eager to get out into the world. One of these days, he’ll leave home and build his own nest. That will be a big event. As a society, we don’t have rituals for that. Oh sure, we have parties. But we don’t have rituals. I want to change that.
Here are a few ideas.
Memories and Mashed Potatoes
I call this first one “Memories and Mashed Potatoes.” As rituals go, this is a support ritual. It’s for the child leaving home and for the parents and siblings left behind.
No surprise, from weddings and funerals to Sunday dinners at grandma’s house, food has long been a staple of family gatherings. For me, Sunday dinners meant pot roast and mashed potatoes. As a kid, I sculpted the potatoes to make a lake for my mother’s homemade gravy. As a teen cook, I cursed the lumps I could never conquer. As an adult, I experimented with chicken stock, heavy cream, light cream, cream cheese, sour cream, roasted garlic, and shaved parmesan to improve the classic add-ins of milk and butter. Some efforts were more successful than others. In time, I realized there’s a reason mashed potato bars became a popular feature at wedding receptions. Comfort food, like mashed potatoes, pair with events designed to make memories. Let the power of nostalgia seasoned with food work for you.
During the week before your child leaves home, serve his or her favorite meal. It can be a dish you make yourself, or something from a favorite restaurant or even take-out. The key ingredients are not in the food; they’re in the memories. While everyone is eating, make a point to talk about the food and the future.
“The next time you eat eggplant parmesan, you’ll be in Italy! When that day comes, what will you remember about the eggplant parm we’re having tonight?” If there are siblings, encourage them to share a favorite memory made with the one leaving home.
If the meal is homemade, give your child the recipe. My daughter emails her favorite recipes to me all the time. I print them out and add them to a three-ring binder I keep in the kitchen. When she comes to visit, she often cooks. She could open her phone for the recipe but she prefers to use my binder. She says the 14-point type is easier to read.
I think the real reason she uses my binder, or any of the cookbooks in my little library, is that whenever I follow a recipe, I make a note in the margin.
I might write that I substituted an ingredient or had to increase the baking time. Most of my notes, however, are like diary entries:
1999 Sept 29 / Dick [husband] home from 6-month hike on Appalachian Trail. He has mixed feelings. I’m trying to understand.
2010 Nov 25 / Up early with Tim [son-in-love] to prep the turkey. Such fun to cook with him.
2016 May 27 / Bad news from Dick’s neurologist. It’s Altzheimer’s.
2020 Dec 6 / Logan [grandson] here for 10 days. Helped me set up the Christmas tree. Can’t manage it by myself anymore.
When you give your child the binder, add notes to the recipes. Think of your notes as sourdough starter.
Crispy Cobbler: “Perfect dessert to console or celebrate.”
Shortcut Chili: “Go easy on the hot sauce. Don’t give your friends indigestion.”
Chicken Soup: “Be sure to make a wish every time you taste-test!”
You’re nurturing a new level of parent-child relationship with this binder whether or not your child ever cooks.
The Enchanted Map
When Logan was about five years old, we made a treasure map from a brown, grocery story bag. We tore the edges to give it a rustic feel, then pressed wet tea bags all over it to make it look old. His artistic talents were evident even then, so he drew a map. It had a castle, a magic forest, assorted monsters, and a treasure. We rolled up the map like a scroll and tied it with a ribbon.
That evening, we went to the wooded area near my home and played a game we called Magic Castle. We wore costumes I had made and placed battery operated tea lights at the base of the magical trees and hid a genuine treasure chest. Then he opened the map and our search began. Yes, we knew where everything was. That didn’t matter. We used our imaginations. He had an adventure. I made memories.
As it turned out, he made memories, too. He’ll be 19 next week. Not long ago he came to visit and said he wished all kids could play Magic Castle like we did when he was young. (Yes, my heart melted.)
Don’t worry if you don’t have a map your child made as a young squire, a space traveler, a pirate, or a princess. You can invest in the oracle deck, “The Enchanted Map,” by Collette Baron Reed. There are 54 cards. The images are intriguing. One is of a white, heart-faced barn owl holding a make-a-wish dandelion puff while sitting on top of an egg that sits on top of a Grecian column in a field filled with fluffy dandelions.
In the accompanying guidebook, each card begins with a sentence or two that condenses the wisdom of the card. Then the book goes deeper. It asks thoughtful questions about the people, places, conditions, and challenges we meet on our journeys, both the physical and metaphorical.
For example, the owl with the dandelion is on the card “Intention.” The message in the guidebook is about the power of having clear intentions and sending those intentions into the world, allowing synchronicity to do its magic. That’s an excellent card for a child about to leave the nest. It’s perfect for the child’s parents, too.
Other cards are equally evocative. The Bone Collector is my favorite. It’s another card that can apply to the child or the parent.
Picture a slender old woman with twinkling eyes and a bright smile. She wears a long, earth-colored, Bohemian style dress. A cloud of white smoke gathers around her nearly bald head. She’s sitting on the ground, in the center of a circle formed of stones. On her left is a clock, on her right is a rabbit. In her hands, she holds a peacock feather. The sun is setting on the desert background. Animal skeletons hang behind her like pendant lights.
From the guidebook, we learn that the Bone Collector was there at your childhood wounding. The intensity of that wounding varies, of course. But we’ve all experienced some kind of limitation or disappointment as a child. According to the message, that’s when we lost some part of ourselves. All these years, the Bone Collector has kept safe what was stolen from you in that wounding. The challenge is for you to see yourself in a new way. She’s there for you, right now, as you reclaim your power.
When you or your child leaves home, it’s good to be reminded of the power of your intentions. It’s good to be encouraged to claim back your power.
Create a Ritual with the Enchanted Map Cards
Here’s a simple ritual for how to use the cards in a ritual with friends and family. This ritual would work well for a child leaving home for a career, the call of the wild, like backpacking across Europe, or an adventure of the heart.
Each guest selects a card, sight unseen. At an appropriate moment, the guests take turns reading the corresponding condensed messages from the guidebook and giving the cards to the guest of honor. The guests are encouraged to add a personal wish.
Give your child a container that can hold all the cards. Encourage him or her to pull one of the cards each morning as part of a daily ritual. If your son or daughter doesn’t have a spiritual practice, this ritual is a safe and simple way to begin one.
Ritual: Super-Hero Map
Remember the map I made with my grandson? Make one for your child. If you don’t want to use a grocery store bag, get a piece of butcher’s paper, newsprint, or packing paper.
Let’s assume your son or daughter is going off to college. On the paper, sketch a road with starting and ending points. One point is your home address; the other is the name of the college.
Let the guests mark on the map something the new freshman might encounter along the 4-year journey. For instance: small dorm room / great roommate / join thespian group / join sports team / join debate club / join band / party / learn you really do need to sleep / tough exams / repeat course / meet someone…special
Have each person also write along the edges of the map some super-hero quality the student possesses: Smart / Confident / Creative / Resourceful / Popular / Honest / Compassionate. Have the guests write their own names on the map, too.
Remember that intent is what makes an activity a ritul. When the guests have presented their cards and written their messages on the map, roll up the paper and tie it with a string. Pass it among all the guests. Encourage each person to hold the map while saying, “Remember your way home” or something similar.
When the map has been anointed with the good will of the guests, present the map. Make sure your child knows how well-equipped he or she is for the journey ahead.
If you’re a sibling of the one leaving home… give your departing brother or sister something that represents you. That could be a photo, especially a photo of the two of you. It could be a stuffed animal, or a bandana, or a stone on which you’ve written your name.
What if you’re the parent of the one leaving home? My sister and I talked about this a few days ago. I told her that when my daughter left home I cried. Whenever she’d come to visit and it came time to leave, I kissed her and waved good-bye, then closed the door and cried. That was the routine for three years. I’m not exaggerating.
My sister reminded me that back then, there were no cell phones, no Facebook or Facetime, no Zoom or Skype or WhatsAp. Long distance phone calls were charged by the minute. It was easy for an average $20 monthly phone bill to wind up in the hundreds of dollars.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways parents and children can stay connected these days. That can lessen the anxiety of having a child leave home. Still, the empty nest needs to be acknowledged — with a ritual.
Ritual: The Fledgling
The idea for this ritual is to create a symbolic nest to represent your child’s new home, wherever that might be.
You can find a hand-crafted nest in a craft store. Line it with dried moss. You can find that at craft stores, too. Or, line it with strips of an old piece of clothing, or fabric in your child’s favorite color.
Keep a pen and a pad of notepaper near the nest. Whenever you feel sad, tear off a slip of paper. Write your child a few words of encouragement, or a wish, or an affirmation. For instance, you might write:
- You have a lot of wisdom to offer. Share your voice.
- Someone needs your smile.
- Go ahead. Try something new.
- Find your open door.
Fold up your message and put it in the nest. Later, you can give the nest to your child, complete with notes. You might even add a Hershey Kiss or two or ten to the nest.
In the end, when you take concrete action to affirm your love as a parent and to support your child’s new venture, you create a ritual. Though the pain of missing your child doesn’t disappear, it does become easier to bear.