Over the course of the next three weeks, all three of my now-grown children will be leaving Louisiana—one to Teach for America in Ohio, one to work for the United Nations in Ecuador and, the youngest, to go to Spring Hill College in Alabama.
Three birds fleeing the nest, literally, all at once.
As a mom, I gotta tell you, it’s hard.
We came to Baton Rouge with Hurricane Katrina and never left. My twin girls were just 8; my son, only 5. How did 14 years go by so fast?
I thought I’d be better prepared for this. When the girls went to college four years ago, I experienced the same crushing separation anxiety. But they only went down the road, to Tulane in New Orleans, so we were able to see them every few weeks. Plus, we still had our son at home.
Now, they’ll all be gone, out of state or out of the country. It’s a whole new reality.
I’ve been very blessed to have truly wonderful children. You hope your kids turn out better than you. Mine surpassed me in every way—especially the ways that matter most. They are grounded, giving and down-to-earth, with values rooted in a deep-seated faith that I only wish I could take credit for instilling in them.
I’m thrilled for the opportunities they have before them and I’m humbled by the good things they want to do in the world. I don’t want to hold them back. After all, I didn’t have kids so they could stick around and keep me company as I age. I raised them to be intellectually curious and passionate about the world.
I just wish they didn’t have to go so far.
My friends with older children tell me they’ll come back in a few years, after they’ve gotten the wanderlust out of their system. But a lot of young people don’t ever come back, and Louisiana doesn’t have as much to offer—outside of strong family ties and great festivals—as do many other places.
It’s true, the state’s employment picture has improved of late. Unemployment is below 4%. But it’s also true that, as has been the case since the 1950s, Louisiana continues to experience negative net migration, which means people are leaving here at a faster rate than they’re coming.
In fact, Louisiana’s population has grown just 23% over the past four decades—about half the national average. The populations of Texas and Georgia, by comparison, have doubled in that time, while that of Florida has nearly tripled.
Other states and markets continue to surpass us in all the major quality of life categories— health care outcomes, infrastructure investments, education, environmental cleanliness, poverty rates. It’s the same story, year in and year out.
We all know people living in places like Houston and Atlanta who tell us on their visits home for holidays or weddings how much they miss Louisiana and wish they could move home. But the schools are so much better in The Woodlands; the job opportunities so much more plentiful in Nashville. And they’re right.
My kids are blissfully unaware of any of this, and at this point, they’re not leaving because they cannot find a job here. They just smell the wider world, want to taste what’s out there and spend some time giving back. But in a few years, the hard realities of living here might preclude them from being able to return.
They tell me they’re only going away for a few years. They say they want to come back before too long, bringing with them lessons learned from experiences that will enable them to help make sinking, flood-prone, impoverished south Louisiana a better place to live.
I believe they want this with all the youthful idealism they possess in their hearts. What they don’t realize, what they cannot possibly understand, is that life gets in the way. You make friends. You start to thrive in your new job. You fall in love, and all of a sudden, what began as a two-year stint somewhere becomes a couple of decades or, maybe, the rest of your life.
I was extremely fortunate during the 22 years I had my children at home that I had the wherewithal and ability to work flexible schedules, and sometimes even part-time, so I could spend as much time with my family as possible.
I passed up opportunities for advancement and better salaries so that I could maintain the freedom and flexibility that made my personal balancing act possible. I am fortunate I was able to make those choices and wouldn’t do it any other way if I had to do it over again. I wish every mom had that option, if she wanted it, because it’s worth it.
Of course, everyone balances priorities as best they can, based on their own needs, beliefs and value systems. It’s a juggling act that differs from one parent to the next. But I wish I could tell young moms and those who still have kids at home to choose carefully, and treasure every minute—even if that means skipping that meeting to make a soccer game, blowing off the after-hours cocktails to help your kids with their homework, or saving the triathlons and girls trips for another day.
Because that day will come, all too soon.