Thursday, October 1, 2015

When Your Child Goes to College: The Heartbreak We're Expected to Get Over in a Weekend.

It started senior year. A sudden awareness of the time being reduced to "months left"..."weeks left". I kept it to myself, this mental hourglass. Last back-to-school shop. Last Halloween. Last Spring Break. Then it was May. Last day of making her coffee, packing her school lunch. Was she aware too? We never talked about it.

June brought a flurry of graduation and senior week events...parties and beach trips with her friends - sunburns and late nights out...the separation was starting already and no one had asked me to sign off on it. I told myself we still had "all summer". But it was different. She was home to sleep, but not much more. I let curfews and questions kind of slip away because she was an adult now, and it was only a matter of weeks (days?) until she answered to no one but herself.

Those August days leading up to move-in weekend I kept my mind busy with lists and purchases: mattress toppers, bulletin boards, desk lamps, bed risers. Meal plans, bank accounts, passwords, parking passes. Every now and then, when no one was home, it would consume me like those waves in the surf that you realize at the last second you misjudged. I would crumple to the couch and cry with an anguish that I hadn't ever even heard in my voice. She was leaving me. My baby was really leaving.

The day of the drive up I was fine - it was exciting and nostalgic, evoking memories of my own freshman year. Our little foursome unloaded the car and moved her stuff in, one family unit among thousands of others, all performing identical tasks, all feeling identical feelings.

Hours later, when it became apparent that the girls' room was "done" with unpacking and decorating, and it was "Time", we offered to take our goodbye outside to give each family some privacy.  I looked over at her roommate's mom and saw the tears beginning to fill her eyes, and impulsively hugged her. Tightly.  We probably stayed that way for a full minute, two total strangers crying on each others' shoulder. The dads chuckled and the girls rolled their eyes. "Oh my God, Mom..." For that minute, this stranger knew me better than anyone else in the world.

Down in the courtyard, my daughter hugged her little sister, then her dad, then me. She had a meeting to get to. She wasn't sad, or scared, or heartbroken. She was ready.

On the walk back to the car, there were many moms in sunglasses. Dads walking purposefully, nothing to see here..we got this. Younger siblings who weren't quite sure what kind of change this would bring for them.

The worst moment came when we returned home. Walking through the door without her made it all real. I climbed the stairs to her bedroom, which was still disheveled from her final pack.. took the pillow she'd slept on, hugged it to my chest and sank to the floor.

I feel somehow that it's disrespectful to parents who've actually lost children to describe the utter heartbreak and grief of that moment. But it was real...and all-consuming.

"You should be happy for her!" friends admonished. Of course I was. "She'll be back for Thanksgiving," others said. Yes, she would. But an 18-year chapter of my life had abruptly ended in less than a day. It was time for her to start her own life. And then I realized the thing I was grieving most:  She'll always be everything to me, but I'll stop being everything to her.

And that is motherhood. And I just need a little time.