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Letting Go When They Go Back to School

In the span of the last three weeks, my life has undergone a seismic change. My oldest went off to college two weeks ago and my youngest entered nursery today. Labor room to dorm room, that's how fast it all seems to have gone by. I'm trying to absorb it all.
09/11/2015 02:12pm ET | Updated September 11, 2016
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In the span of the last three weeks, my life has undergone a seismic change.

My oldest went off to college two weeks ago and my youngest entered nursery today.

Labor room to dorm room, that's how fast it all seems to have gone by.

I'm trying to absorb it all.

Some moments that we are in we know that they hold the power of our personal history, looking back years later and realizing that they were big moments.

I know this is one such moment.

And I know this moment will be so for my 17 year old daughter.

She will look back at her first days in college and remember how awkward she was, how unknown her roommates seemed, how good the cafeteria food looked, how exciting it was to stand on the threshold of life.

I know because, for the first time in my life, when we dropped her off at the dorm, I had to look back at my college years with a sort of finality.

My first few days in college I cannot even recall; Schedules, meeting so many new people, adjusting to professors' reading demands, it was all exciting, accentuating that stage of life when everything seems possible. Life had not yet set any boundaries.

I remember how the cafeteria bagel sandwiches looked so good in the first few weeks and by the second year were blobs of mayonnaise that I only bought when I was desperately hungry. I remember how New York City seemed so fresh, holding so much promise and excitement.

I remember the first deep friendships that I made, both women whom I have not been in touch with for decades, but am forever grateful for what they taught me through their love and insight.
I remember Rebecca in my Arabic class who announced one day that her dad was Jewish, and her mom was Palestinian. We, Jewish and Israeli girls who kind of stuck together in this class, had no idea what to tell her. It was a long moment of silence.

I started growing up in that moment.

I remember being the girl who was NOT from the East Coast and did not know many of the people and places other friends took for granted. That was hard socially, but it made the world that much bigger.

I remember my first semester in philosophy, thinking how I could sit there and talk about ideas all day and night long.

And I did; on the subways, in the cafeteria, in dorm rooms, in the library when I was supposed to be studying.

Being part of an intellectual enterprise made me feel like I was part of the human narrative that was being written at that very moment, the rush of the wind before a wild, summer rainstorm.
I remember my first after- school job with a nine year old girl. I was hired to tutor her. I don't even remember in what. But I became a mentor, and then later a sister to her.

I remember when I had to set boundaries for myself with the mom and had to leave the job. How I ached for that little girl whom I would never see.

I remember the first boy I went out with and exactly where I met him on 116th and Morningside Heights.

I remember the first therapist I had, when I broke up with that boy.

I remember all the parties and outings with friends that dotted my social landscape.

I remember how independent it all made me feel.

And now my daughter is creating those memories for herself. She will have landmarks and moments, and I need to move over and make room for the next generation.

I learnt this lesson once before.

A few days after I gave birth to my oldest child, I remember looking into her face and realizing that as far as everyone else was concerned this was not about ME giving birth but rather about HER being born.

Every caller started with, "How is the baby?" No one was really interested in how I was. The spotlight had shifted.

That's what it feels like when one generation gets replaced by another.

But with this stepping aside to make room for my children-for the next generation- I hope I have also stepped up a rung on the ladder of wisdom.

When I took my youngest daughter, my four-year-old, and noticed how most of the mothers were much younger than me, maybe this was their first or second child, I looked at them and saw myself, once young, naïve, on the threshold of that exciting stage: sending my first or second child off to school. I believed I was handing perfection itself over to that first teacher.

The bridge between those years of early motherhood and today are laced with beautiful and painful moments.

I had to learn how to advocate for my daughters in school, and that if I didn't do it, no one else would.

I had to learn to accept that my daughters were not perfect when the teacher called. It helped me see how we can all be wonderful and mean sometimes. I still try to tell them this.

I tried to teach them to put their feelings of shame and anger in a capsule when girls were being mean, so that they would take that capsule out when they had to choose how to act later.

I had to learn how to support my daughters through friendship break ups, watching them realize that I cannot protect them from everything, and that the world is, in fact, not always a fair place.
I had to learn to accept them because they are made up of good and bad, just like me.

I had to learn that motherhood is about loving, and loving is about letting go. And that every step forward my child takes does not mean that I need to recede, but, rather, that, I, too, am taking steps forward. And that somewhere out there, all of our mothers, elderly or older, are still loving us, still letting go.

And that bridge of time between early motherhood and today is also built of beautiful moments, like when one of my daughters saw the hypocrisy of her school administration speak about a tragedy in the Jewish world, while ignoring a tragedy in the larger world.

My mantras are making some inroads, I hope.

That bridge is also made up of the crystal moment when we arrive at the beach every July, when my older daughters grab their younger sisters' hands and teach them how to jump the waves. (Even after they just spent the car ride fighting about who gets . . . the front seat, the last chocolate, the better towel.)

This span of time includes the day my daughter was nine and stood up for a girl whose lunch bag was grabbed from her by many of her classmates in the gym.

And that bridge is also built upon a freezing January day many years ago when my daughters offered a special needs girl to join them on their sled. Now that girl is no longer special needs, rather, she is just a part of our family, like another sister.

It is built on birthday dinners, Hanukkah menorah lightings, and many traditions that my daughters consider to be "Shulman Family."

That bridge can be witnessed in the decorations on the Sukkah hut wall we build every year in the Fall: a faded apple shaped Jewish New Year card with a first grader's clumsy signature, a construction paper honey jar that is wilting from a few seasons of rain, and elaborate artwork done by one of my daughters when they were thirteen-that was the cutoff for making decorations.

So when I looked at those young moms today surrounding me and my four year old-they equally as anxious looking as their charges, and in a blink of an eye saw that bridge between my first day with my oldest almost fifteen years ago and today, I whispered to those moms in my heart, "good luck, it is a tough and wonderful road, this road of motherhood."