When my oldest child left home for college the morning of August 29, 2013, I truly understood for the first time the emotions of my older friends who'd talked ad nauseam about the anguish they'd endured at that moment. The tattletale puffiness around my eyes could attest to the fact that I cried -- a lot.
But within a few months, my son was home for Christmas, and then later for spring break, and then finally for the whole of summer. And during those periods, my family of five fell into old patterns. My oldest walked the dog -- just like he always did. He played chess with his younger brother. Late at night, we all binged on re-runs of "The Office."
But then this year rolled around and I was caught off guard by seven simple words: "I'm not coming home for spring break." Instead, he explained, he's planning a trip with friends. "That's okay, isn't it?" he asked. Of course it is, I responded. And it is. It truly, truly is. After all, this is what he's supposed to be doing -- striking out on his own. And I'm happy for him. But there's no denying the dull maternal ache that crept into my heart the moment those words spilled out of his mouth.
When my kids were little, people would always say, "Enjoy this time. They grow up so quickly." And, yes, they were right. But whereas days used to slip away like hours and weeks used to slip away like days, right now our months as a family unit feel as though they're elapsing like minutes. Everything is changing so rapidly, it's kind of like watching my favorite movie with the fast-forward button depressed, when all I want to do is hit the pause button.
Not only is my oldest not coming home for spring break, but my middle kid has just decided to head to Brazil in September for a gap year to do community development work before starting college -- a plan my husband and I wholeheartedly support. And my 15-year-old daughter? She recently landed a counselor-in-training position that will have her spending much of the summer away at camp.
The depth of emotion that went along with becoming the parent of a college freshman suddenly pales in comparison to the gamut of feelings I'm experiencing these days as all three of my kids seem to be inching further and further away from me -- at the same time. And I know it's only going to get worse.
Shortly after my son's departure for college as a freshman, I mentioned my melancholy to an older neighbor. I'll never forget what she told me: "Believe me, that's nothing compared to the moment you help your kid move into their first apartment after they graduate college. In college, they still come home, at least occasionally. After they get a job and move to a new city, all bets are off."
I'm starting to understand what she meant. On the verge of becoming the mother of three young adults, I'm already starting to grieve the end of my experience of being the kind of mom I've been for the past 20 years -- one with a lot of face-to-face interaction with my kids. Many parents will read this and think, "What's wrong with you? This is what your kids are supposed to be doing. Wouldn't the alternative be so much worse?"
Of course it would. I know that. There's nothing more that I want in the world than for my kids to be happy and to make their own way. And believe me, I could not be more ashamed of myself than when I think of acquaintances whose children have died. But that doesn't mean I can't be sad -- or that any parent can't be sad -- at least for a little while. There's been a shift in our family dynamic, and there will be even more seismic shifts over the next few years, and these shifts require time to process. Sometimes they require time to mourn. As each kid moves on, our family changes its form, and has to regain its footing. I, too, have to regain my own footing as a new kind of mother.
I've loved raising my kids. It's been the greatest joy of my life. The back-to-school shopping. The family movie nights. The countless orders of takeout Sesame Chicken from the Chinese restaurant around the corner -- my three kids' favorite food. The kitchen that's such a mess after my daughter and her friends bake cupcakes. Even the debates over an eyebrow piercing and all the worrying. So much worrying. I have relished every minute of it.
And I will love the many times we undoubtedly will share as a family in the future. But I don't care what anyone says. The experience of letting go can be painful. Maybe not for everybody, but for some of us. My son not coming home for spring break is just one small part of that. I always knew this phase of my life would come -- and that it would be hard. But I guess I never knew it would be this hard. A chapter is coming to an end but another will begin. I just have to get used to it.
Besides, it's only a few more weeks until summer break. And I think he's coming home.