How are you feeling, they ask.
Many well-meaning, caring and generous friends are probing, texting, inviting me for coffee. Some have been through it, others are still breastfeeding. How am I feeling about sending my oldest child away to college this fall?
So, how am I feeling?
Well, I am often near tears. I vacillate between feeling sad and slightly manic. I am blasé about it all. “I’m fine, no big deal. I’m so excited for her!” I say with a brave smile. I am frequently exasperated and critical of her excessive shopping and emotionality. I am also truly, genuinely happy for her to begin this next chapter. In short, I’m a bit of a mess. And that’s OK.
If your child is leaving or has left for college, whether it is your first, only or youngest offspring, you have shared these feelings and more. If you think it was no big deal and you couldn’t wait to see them go, I applaud you. I’d like to sit with you a while so I can absorb some of your stoicism. I might also scratch the surface a bit, to see what lurks below. I want to believe that everyone is struggling with the same stew of emotions that I’m feeling.
Walking down the street these recent days, I’ll suddenly have a flashback of a moment, long past. Age 2, her messy face as she shoveled spaghetti and red sauce into her mouth at a nursery school “try-out.” She held the plate up and asked for more, please. How the school director, an Orthodox Jewish woman, astonishingly the mother of 9 children herself, called her “delicious.” I’d never heard that word applied to a child. And indeed she was delicious. Chubby, round, happy. Precocious, sassy, bright. Sensitive and sometimes maddening, insisting we rock her, lie with her, do her bidding. We were amateurs, jumping at the first whimper, constantly at her beck and call. She had our number from the start. She made us a family, taught us how to be parents, welcomed her siblings and charted a course for all of us over the last 18 years.
We’ll surely feel the loss in our home, in our kitchen, at our dining table, but I fear I’ll experience it a little more deeply than the others. She is my shopping buddy, my confidante, my fashion police and my pop culture guru. We share a love of musical theater and enjoy many of the same singers and bands. I recently impulsively bought two tickets to a concert in October, jumping to grab them before they sold out. As I pressed the “buy now” button on the website, it didn’t occur to me for a moment that my daughter wouldn’t be here to join me. Of course, I’ll find a companion—my husband or a friend—but it won’t be the same. She plays many roles in my life, but at the end of the day, I’m proud and gratified to call her my friend, and I’ll miss her presence in my daily life.
I feel a constant low-grade worry about her safety at college, her health (physical, mental and emotional), her ability to handle the academic and social pressures. I hope we’ve done a good job of preparing her for the realities of the world, given her the tools to care for herself, to stand up when she falls down, to walk away from toxic people. I want to send her away for four short years, safe in the knowledge that she’ll return to us a stronger, more confident, even smarter version of the young woman she is today. But mostly, I just want her to come back, soon.
Another flash of memory: we are walking down the street after elementary school dismissal. Was it Kindergarten? First grade? It is late Fall and the light is already starting to change, the day becoming short. The afternoon sun is golden, dappled on the sidewalk through the bare branches of the trees that line the block. She is running away from me, laughing, her brown hair flying behind her. She tosses a smile over her shoulder at me, daring me to chase her.
We walked that block literally hundreds of times when she was young. Why does this moment stick, and I have forgotten all of the others? What is that memory trying to tell me?
She’s running ahead of me. She is happy. She is healthy and strong. She embraces life. She’s on her way.