My second oldest child left home last week, hopping on a plane to spend a gap year abroad before she starts college. The year before, I sent my oldest daughter off on pretty much the same trip so you'd think I would know what I was doing. I followed the same pattern and the same schedule. Shopping. Trips to Target. Electronics stores. Unlocking cell phones and organizing passports and credit cards. We went through the same pre-flight panic when we realized one of the bags was too heavy and one might not fit the standard carry-on criteria.
And we said our goodbyes.
You'd think that having done this before I would find it easier, much like watching my children graduate Kindergarten. The first time was beautiful and sentimental. The fifth time we arrived late and didn't stick around for the cake at the after-party. But instead, leaving my daughter at the airport was heart wrenching. Watching her go off, just like her sister did a year before, was emotional and difficult.
I wasn't sure why. In fact, when friends came over to me the next day, they all said the same thing. "Oh, this is probably nothing for you. You're used to this."
It couldn't be further from the truth.
I went bungee jumping when I was 18 and I remember leaping headfirst off the platform, 150 feet in the air. I didn't see much of the ground rushing up to meet me because before I knew it, I was springing back towards the platform, terrified that I was going to hit it. And then I went down again. That second time falling back towards the water was infinitely more terrifying. I had already done the hard part -- I had focused myself, took a breath, and dove into nothingness. But falling back down after that first jump, when I was jolted uncontrollably back upwards after coming within inches of the water, I knew what was coming. I knew what I was falling into. And I knew there was no way to stop and catch my breath.
I think that's why the second time is always harder.
I am now intimately aware of what her getting on that plane means for my family. I know that from this point on, when she comes home, she is only coming as a visitor. I know that the family dynamic will shift once again, more dramatically this time with two kids away -- one in another country and one in college. While I knew all these things when my oldest first took off, it hit me slowly, as the year unfolded. When I sat in her room and looked at her posters, when we spoke on WhatsApp, when we Facetimed and counted the days for her return, only to pack her up and send her off again.
This time, it isn't theoretical. I have no illusions about what it means when my second daughter boards that plane. I'm on that bungee cord hurtling out of control, knowing what's coming and thinking with all my heart, please slow down. So even though I've been at this gate before, the tears come easier this time around, the pain stabs a bit sharper, and the moment becomes significantly more bitter than sweet.
I know when it is my other children's turns, it won't be any easier. Those airport moments will always be hard no matter how many times I escort a child to the gate, kiss them on the cheek, and wave goodbye.
It doesn't get any easier. That's for sure.
But watching them become independent? Grow? Flourish?
That couldn't get any better.
A copy of this article first appeared on writingelves.com on September 11, 2016.