The pile in the living room is getting larger. The mini fridge. The laundry bag. The desk lamp. The XL twin sheets (what in the fresh hell is this??) The box of snacks and ramen. The cleaning supplies (who are we kidding? And yes, I’m still packing these in the car because hope is a powerful thing). The bulletin board. The backpack. As the college dorm pile gets larger, so does the hole in my heart.
Every moment up to this day laid the foundation for this very day. The insistence on manners. The lessons in critical thinking. The practice of using your words to get your needs met. I had one job to do, and I did it. And now, I’m kind of bummed I worked myself out of a job.
I know he won’t be far away. I know he’ll come home for holidays and summers. I also know this is the beginning of the end. The end of our daily mundane connections. The end of how his man-child presence fills the space and atmosphere in the house. The end of the high energy and loud volume in the air. After 6,445 days (but who’s counting?), this era will come to an end. When the packed car backs out of the driveway, I know I’ll have holidays and summers. I also know summers won’t be guaranteed when he gets an internship or takes extra summer classes. Summers will eventually disappear with real jobs. And then we’ll only have some holidays when he’s partnered. It’s like a long, slow good-bye.
I don’t think anyone can ever truly be prepared for this sadness and anxiety. I suddenly have all these parenting regrets and my head tells me that I did the best I could. My head tells me that if I made different decisions, there would be other consequences too. But in my head, it feels like I’m scurrying around the deck of a sinking ship picking up litter in an attempt to make things right, and honestly to soothe myself.
I’ve realized that when things are going well, when one of the kids demonstrates maturity or resilience, writes a kick-ass thank-you card, or gets into college, I pat myself on the back for a job well done. When things go south, when one of the kids is struggling or makes a bad decision, I shoulder the blame and start my morning off with a strong cup of regret. I forget that these not-so-little people have agency, autonomy, and self-determination. No matter how much I think I’m in control, it’s all an illusion.
I must confess part of my agita of sending a child off to college is rooted in the fear that I’ll lose all control and everything will go off the rails without my expert supervision and extensive lists. I’ve believed that my incessant nagging about waking up before the sun sets, doing laundry at least monthly, and eating more vegetables than preservatives made a difference in who my children are. Sending a child off to college removes any illusion of control and bitch slaps me in the face that these children will make all sorts of decisions in their lives, big and small, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it (other than bailing someone out of jail).
This has always been the case. It had never been about control, or wet towels on the floor, or the pile of shoes in front of the door. A large part of who they are today is a mix of luck and all those moments of listening, talking, and modeling values and behaviors. It has been about validating the fears and hopes of each child, about holding each child’s story in a safe place as each child writes a new chapter. I’m remembering the only thing my kids need from me, no matter how old they are or where they live, is to continue to validate who they are and the decisions they make, and to hold their stories. Even when things go south. Especially when things go south. They will tell you they need spending money too, but no one is asking them today.
It has never been about who I want them to be, or what I want for their lives, and trust me, I had grand plans. It’s been about clearing the air around them enough so they can listen to their gut and inner voice. Sending a child off to college has reminded me that I’m only the boss of me and that my children have made me a better person, a person who has the capacity for unconditional love. They’ve made me exhausted and exasperated too, but mostly a better person.
A friend reminded me, “roots and wings.” This makes the ache a little duller, a little more palatable. I can do roots and wings. I can do hard things. Even with nagging doubts, I know in my heart that my kids have grown roots and wings. I’m really sad that I won’t be watering those roots daily anymore, but I have to remember that those roots have taken hold. And that wings can’t flap well when wet.