One of my favorite quotes about parenting has always been: “Children are preprogrammed for abandonment.”
I have no idea where I read this, but I have always tried to keep this in the forefront of my mind while raising my four daughters.
Someday they are going to leave. Things will change. The idyllic, carefree days of their childhood will be but a memory, photos in a book that I flip through and memories that flit through my mind.
Preparing myself, steeling myself, bracing myself for my oldest daughter’s departure for college began her freshman year of high school when she went on her first college campus visit. Just thinking about her inevitable departure brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. Each school dance, holiday, report card, and vacation brought the separation closer. I made a concerted effort to focus on what was in front of me rather than on the impending D-Day (doomsday, departure day, death to childhood day, etc.).
Senior year I served as my daughter’s head cheerleader when she applied to her dream school and celebrated with her when she was accepted into Virginia Tech in December. I honestly couldn’t have been happier for her. One of my primary goals as a parent included raising successful, motivated young adults who envisioned bright futures for themselves. Of course this meant that they must eventually (gasp!) leave the house and move on to college.
Summer after senior year was a bit tumultuous for both of us as the Big Day drew closer. She was torn between spending time with friends and family. I wanted ALL of her time! We took lots of shopping trips to buy dorm supplies which always left me with a huge pit lodged in the bottom of my stomach. This college thing was really happening. Our basement was gradually filling up with colorful bedding, storage bins, study lamps, photo collages, and piles of clothing.
D-day arrived. I practiced my deep breathing and continued to make promises to myself not to cry. My goal for the day was to send my daughter off with a smile and to let her know that I was incredibly proud of her and happy to see her begin this new stage of her life. Because I was. I just also happened to be really, really sad about not having her living at home anymore.
The time finally came when we had to say good bye. We hugged; it was one of those pulled-in-close, warm, lingering hugs. I didn’t trust myself to speak so I just waved. As my husband and I drove off, I finally allowed myself to cry. The crying didn’t make me feel any better.
Walking past her empty room, setting only five places at the dinner table, and first day of school photos with three kids instead of four were constant reminders that my oldest was gone gone gone. I looked forward to her texts, calls, skype sessions and even smoke signals; any sort of proof of life was welcome.
Over the course of the school year, a funny thing happened. Rather than the geographical distance pulling us apart, our relationship strengthened, evolved and was elevated to new level. I was seeing the fruits of my parenting labors alive and thriving in my daughter which was beyond rewarding. She couldn’t wait to share her adventures, discoveries, theories, and future plans with me. We couldn’t stop talking to each other!
Our mother-daughter relationship had moved forward to include a new tag. We now had a mother-daughter-friend relationship which was more wonderful than I imagined possible when I sent her off on D-Day.
The very next year, I sent my second daughter off to college. This college was eight hours from home and saying goodbye was not any easier. In fact, I think it was harder since I felt like I was deserting her in a place where she knew no one. It didn’t seem like a very friendly campus and I had to force myself to get in my car and drive away.
Of course she did just fine. I survived the drive home even with tears blurring my vision for most of the long trip.
Two years of college later, she is no longer the same girl she was when I dropped her off and I’m ok with that. More than ok. Her social confidence has skyrocketed, her mind is alive from being challenged by her peers and professors, and of course, being a student at Brown University, she’s now a socialist.
After a period of emotional distance, we are becoming closer once again which fills me with pleasure. Leaving the mother-child relationship behind and making the move into a more mature relationship was not a smooth transition for either of us. It took time to sort out our new roles and now that we have, I’m enjoying getting to know my daughter all over again.
On July 2, it will be time to take yet another daughter to college. This time it will be a lightning fast 90-second good bye at the gates of West Point. Will I be sad and teary eyed dropping her off even though I know that things will be ok? Yes, absolutely.
The immense stress she will face this summer, including grueling physical challenges and being yelled at constantly, will not exactly set my mind at ease. However, I do look forward to meeting the young woman who I know will emerge victorious once this trial is over.
Closing the door on the “mommy” chapter of my life with each of my children is painful. We’ve shared deployments, moves, birthdays, vacations, movie marathons, slumber parties, game nights, broken bones, everything! There is so much love in my heart, and it’s hard to let go of our shared time together.
What I’ve learned from letting go is this: You have to let your children fly. But they come back, and when they do, the rewards are immense. What parent doesn’t want to see their child happy and thriving? Independent and successful? Engaged and fulfilled?
The period of loss and loneliness is very real, but it does pass making way for new beginnings and deeper relationships.
I still have my baby left at home with me. She’s 15. Please remind me to read this when I’m losing my mind after dropping her off at college in three years.