So I’ve been asked by a couple of my fellow mamas, and even one of my daughter’s friends, to write about that time my girl went off to college. I’ve been pretty reluctant to do so because, frankly, her departure was such a hard time for me. Kait just started her junior year at The George Washington University, and I am JUST NOW ready to talk about the fact that she no longer lives under my roof. That’s right, folks, it’s been over two years, and I am JUST beginning to remotely make peace with her absence. I guess you could say I’m a little attached.
To be perfectly honest, letting my little girl leave was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It was as if someone took my heart right out of my chest, added legs and long blonde hair and let it walk right out my door and into our nation’s capital. I mean, could she have picked a more fabulous (for her) or scary and far (for me) place to spread her wings and fly?
I was beyond happy for and proud of her, so I tried to be strong. I really thought I could hang.
I spent the bulk of her freshman year in a sad, distracted state of mourning. My grief actually began during her senior year of high school as we counted down milestones like we were approaching doomsday. It reached its height when I hugged her good-bye at the door of her dorm room. She and I big, fat, ugly cried (we both do that very well) as we held on to each other tightly and said our goodbyes. If someone had told me 20 years ago as they placed that black-haired little survivor baby in my arms that I’d have to walk away and leave her in a dorm someday, I would’ve gently passed my baby to my husband and full-body tackled that person in the middle of the NICU. Maybe that’s why they don’t tell us those things when they’re babies, for fear of the hormone-induced frenzy.
The nine-hour drive home included periods of uncontrollable sobbing, forced sleep to stop the sobbing, and occasional reminders for my ridiculously calm husband that this was his fault. He was just as much to blame for this pain as he was the pain I experienced during childbirth, right? I thought so.
“How can you just sit there and drive at a time like this???!!”
“Laura, someone has to.” And then he let me be. Smart move.
Once we got home and settled back into our routine, things got a little easier. But there was a distinct void, and I was missing so many things. I missed her in the mornings, with her half-asleep “I’m-not-a-morning-person-but-I’ll-hug-you-because-you’re-my-mom” embrace. I missed her in the afternoons when she’d come bee-bopping through that front door, always greeting me with a smile no matter what her day had delivered (she’s good like that). I missed her in the evenings when we sat down for family dinner. It was SO SAD to look at her empty chair at the table, and even sadder that her siblings silently noted her absence, as well.
It was for her siblings that I finally pulled myself together and began functioning with some level of normalcy (this has always been a pretty broad spectrum for me). We scheduled trips to visit her and for her to come home, and the excitement I had for the opportunities in store for my firstborn began to counter the pain I felt from missing the sight of her beautiful face every day.
It wasn’t always easy. In the beginning, it was clear we disagreed on just a few things. What she saw as an exciting big-city experience in which nothing could go wrong, I saw as a dangerous place in which she should always be aware of her surroundings. So I reminded her of the potential dangers and safety precautions – every day. That’s what a good mom does, right?
What she viewed as an unlimited opportunity to dine out, I viewed as an opportunity to remind her of budgeting – every day. I mean, her school dining card was accepted at a gazillion restaurants in the city, so they were just setting the kids up for failure in money management, and for me to go broke. I was certain she’d appreciate my advice on the matter.
And while she thought it was okay to text me every couple of days to say, “Hi,” I felt that daily contact and a weekly phone call was the standard, so I texted or called her – every day. Multiple times. I just knew she’d loved feeling missed.
Boy, was I wrong about a lot of things. Kait is going to love that I’m about to admit this, but I may have nagged her just a little. Okay, I nagged her a lot. Fine – I was psycho. There, I said it!
My main defense for being a complete nut job is that I’m still young enough to remember college life and all of the things we survived that we probably shouldn’t have. I’m also aware of what a scary world we live in, and in my eyes, she’s still my little girl, donning her ribbons and curls. It doesn’t help that I’ve always had a worse case scenario imagination, and mine ran rampant with a litany of things that could go wrong.
What if she doesn’t click with her roommate?
What if she gets sick and has no one to take care of her?
What if she doesn’t do her laundry and it mildews?
What if there’s a fire in her dorm and the alarm doesn’t go off?
What if her phone dies and she’s in danger and can’t reach me?
What if she doesn’t want to reach me?
What if? What If? What if? You wouldn’t believe all of the things I worried about. I was a hot mess. While I’ll never stop worrying about my children whether they’re in my home or not, I’ve definitely gotten things under control. And so has she.
As a matter of fact, she’s doing great. She survived the first two years of academia which means her classes are now focused on her major, and hence, more enjoyable. She has a fabulous internship that’s providing her a wide range of invaluable experience, and is working part-time to earn a little extra cash. She’s surrounded by great friends and sorority sisters and has family just minutes away if she needs them. And most importantly, she is happy.
It seems that’s the one thing I forgot to nag her about – finding and keeping what makes her happy.
I’ve evolved a little over the past two years, as well. Even though it was my daughter who left the house to further her education, she managed to teach me a few things along the way.
- Letting go is hard – on both of us.
- Holding on too tightly is hard – on both of us.
- There’s a very fine line – or tightrope – between letting our children fail so as to learn from it and reminding them of their newfound responsibilities.
- She wants her space and for her new world to change, but she wants home to stay the same. She even wants to hear about what’s going on with us, and it makes her chuckle when I fill her in on our daily funnies.
- I should never call about business only. While I know that call is to make sure she has enough money, food, and rest, she needs more than all of that. She needs me to just listen.
- I continue to miss her, but with fewer tearful outbursts. That’s right – I still cry sometimes! As a matter of fact, I burst into tears just last week over a Sugarland song! (“Love Your Baby Girl” gets me every time!)
- Celebrating her successes makes the tears and the missing so incredibly worthwhile.
One of my wise friends whose daughter left the nest a year before mine told me, “We don’t want them to leave, but they just can’t stay.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hug her or smack her as she tried to comfort me, but in all of my reluctance, I was sure my friend was right. They just can’t stay.
My baby turns 20 today, and it’s still hard to wrap my head around how quickly the years have flown. We went from moving her into her Little Tikes Princess Playhouse to moving her into her first apartment in the blink of an eye. I must say I handled this latest move like a champ, or at a minimum, better than I did the dorm, and only cried a little on the way home.
It’s interesting; I thought I really knew my daughter when she lived just down the hall. In reality, we’ve learned more about each other since she left than either of us anticipated. She’s creating a life and world that’s all her own, but still remembers where she came from.
I love that about her. She knows who she is; all she needed from us was a vote of confidence and a little room to fly. She knows ours is a big family, but a close one, and that she’s tied to this craziness whether she likes it or not. The good news for this mama is that she likes it. This will always be her home, and she will always be my heart. And no matter what, she will always be my baby girl.