When my daughter left for college two years ago, I had to turn all her photos around. Looking at her bright smiles, some toothless and some gleaming with braces, sent me into a state of grief. In one frame, she was a toddler holding her kitten—Bluesie’s a cranky 16-year-old now—; in another, she’s dressed in that super-expensive tap outfit for the first and the last time, and in the one over my desk, she’s smiling in her graduation gown with all her friends. All those images had to be wall-forward or I would spend the morning either crying or moping into work as if haunted by ghosts.
Now, it’s funny. At the time, people often asked me, with one eyebrow raised, “Isn’t her college only three hours away?” I wasn’t mourning her, though, I was mourning the end of life as we knew it: full of our rich and vivid routines, some that I hated and some that had sustained me for many years.
Take the car line. No, really. Take it. There came a time when she was in 6th or 7th grade when I loathed the task of jockeying for position—all our spewing exhaust pipes ruining the universe—only to be greeted by her monosyllables or the high drama of her day. When would this end? Some mornings we barely made the bell, and I still recall her running for the classroom with her backpack practically flying off her back. While some afternoons, I mis-timed my arrival, and sat in the very hot or the very cold car listening to talk radio, having forgotten anything to read or grade. Ironically, when it came time for her to get her driver’s license, I balked and had panic attacks. How could the child whom I distinctly remember propped on my shoulder upchucking my specially brewed white liquid possibly be this same person driving a 1.5-ton horror machine surrounded by all those other drivers texting and drinking and gunning their engines at red lights? She was one and the same. I just wasn’t ready. An essential part of parenthood is realizing that just when we’re getting used to one phase, they are leaping ahead. Our kids are always ahead of us, and we, the parents, are the ones trying to catch up.
I also struggled to keep it together during the dreaded homework hours. Sure, I was a full-time college professor, so I should have had more patience for my own daughter’s personal travails with math. But wait, I’m an English professor. Did I really have to grade 40 papers a week, and remember how to do algebra? Well, I didn’t; fourth grade math was complicated enough for me to hire a tutor. On the other hand, I could be a bit tough when we looked at a paper full of comma splices. What? Didn’t we talk about this?
Like the crystalline substance that the oyster forms around an irritant, these irritants of daily parenting were becoming my own personal pearls. Maybe I feared her driving because I had trouble letting go of that space we held together in the car, and I knew time was running out even on the teenage years. For parents, our kids’ first forays out in their cars signal a bittersweet freedom. We get time to sleep in, and they, well, they get their freedom: with all the worry and trail of closing doors their freedom entails.
I hear not everyone will get completely blindsided as I did, especially if you’re the parent of more than one child. My friend’s sadness didn’t kick in until about a month after her second child left for campus and he called her with his first wave of homesickness. At my daughter’s college orientation, the Dean of Student Affairs--a mother of eight--said she cried for the first two, can’t remember third and fourth, laughed for five and six, can’t remember seven. Eight was a rising Senior, but her bags are packed and ready to go. But parents of only children, well, we have just the one.
That last year, we did all of the rituals to mark her leaving, many that had fallen by the wayside once she entered high school. We made sure to carve the Halloween pumpkin and took a hayride; we cut down the Christmas tree; we went to spring festivals and hosted the Easter egg hunt at our house. I thought I was preparing myself in every way that I could. But she left home earlier than most because she matriculated in mid-June rather than in August, so we didn’t have our summer rituals. Perhaps, for that reason, my mini-breakdown can be forgiven. It happened at a Five Below, a Dollar General with a slightly more accurate place name, where we went shopping after I’d just refused to pay for everything at Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the interest of encouraging independence. As a result, we were both in a foul mood.
Mothers roamed aisles with their children newly released from school. They were hot, distracted, stuffing things in baskets, and their kids were whining while pop songs ground through the store speakers. I saw butterfly nets, chalk sets, cheap plastic bubble machines and I remembered all those crappy toys, and that we never did send off to get the larvae in the butterfly kit she got. I remembered the summer reading lists that you get at the library at the beginning of summer, and how I often found them under her bed in October half-stamped and starred, covered in dust.
And suddenly, amid the cheaply made stuff produced by underpaid and over-worked labor abroad—why did I bring her here to support this terrible system?—I felt like a failure. I had an intense longing for the entire summers I wouldn’t get with her again. I thought of all the things I hadn’t taught her—could she actually clean a toilet? I hid in aisles wiping away tears, carrying my stupid and empty blue basket, hoping I wasn’t being recorded by closed circuit TV.
Did I appreciate her childhood? Did I play with her enough? Did I tickle her enough? When we finally located each other by text and I had a flustered cry in the car, my daughter raised an eyebrow and said: “Right, mom. You failed me.”
Now that I’m two years out, here’s my delayed wisdom for those of you anticipating the empty nest or experiencing it. You already know some of this, so maybe you just need some reminding.
When your kids are kids: capture as much as you can. Not just photos, and actually, go easy on the photos, capture the moments in your being. The phase you think will last forever, won’t. Try not to distract yourself—with taking photos, for instance-- or to placate them. Instead, fully take in where they are. And these aren’t the “best” moments; they are the real ones. I have thought-captured a dozen or so vivid experiences. These are just the ones on the surface, if I start recalling I can capture about twenty more. I recall holding her for hours one night when she was two; she had an ear infection and couldn’t sleep. Only if I leaned against her toddler bed in a certain position could she rest. I didn’t get any. At first, I struggled with my internal child who wanted to have a temper tantrum after the first or second hour, but then I simply relaxed into it with a thought that has served me well over the years: when things get terrible, meet those moments with tenderness.
In the difficult moments they are having or you are having: know they are temporary. The colic will pass, the teething will pass, the temper tantrums will pass, losing their teeth will pass, the student driving will pass, the braces, the acne, the friend drama, the crappy teachers, the rude boyfriends. We know that, sure, but it’s easy to forget when you’re in the midst of it. And guess what? You’ll miss those moments too.
Forgive yourself for what you forgot to teach them. They’re not to going to know everything when they go off to college. Some of the most routine things I neglected to tell or teach my daughter. Those first few weeks, I got some interesting texts: how do you______? Fill in the blank. I thought for sure I’d told her how to ______(fill in the blank). But they’ll learn most of those things from their friends. It’s called, these days, “adulting.” Once she moved off-campus as a sophomore, her one year ahead roommate taught her the tricks of the trade: how to shop cheaply, how to cook cheaply, how to _____(fill in the blank). Because she’s not telling me. Which is as it should be.
And last: go ahead and mourn. Because that phase is over. The new phases carry their own weight. And they can also be lighter. Which is also as it should be.