I dropped off my third child at college yesterday. You would think I would get better at the whole emotional side of this event, but it’s always the same thing. And it’s always sad for me. It goes something like this:
We arrive at the dorm with hundreds of other students and their parents; everyone trying to navigate strange surroundings, chaotic traffic, and wide-eyed freshman with way too much stuff—do you really need that 72” flat screen and those eight houseplants? We unload our car—helped by a too-peppy upperclassman move-in assistant—and make our way via ultra-full elevator to the floor of the room where my child will spend the next nine months of her life. We unpack the basics; sheets, clothes, lamp, snacks, and I visualize her in that room sleeping and laughing and being lonely and missing me. I’m sure she is visualizing much different things, but I am sad about this new chapter so the bittersweet permeates my thinking.
Sometimes, then, as we did yesterday, we go to Wal-Mart and buy her a pillow because she forgot hers, or we eat in the dining hall with her and help decipher all of the multiple edible options. And while we are eating, I purposely prolong the meal and find several topics of conversation to discuss just so I can spend a little more time with my baby girl. And I visualize her here, in the dining hall, eating every meal without me. And the pangs start; the pangs of longing to keep her with me for always, the pangs of the knowledge of the end of an era, the pangs of wanting to stop time from moving so sickeningly fast. And then, finally, we finish, and I desperately want to hold her hand as we walk back to the room but I don’t because I know it would embarrass her. As we walk up the stairs to her new home, I make a joke and we laugh—really to buoy myself-- because I know what is coming and I am dreading it. I know I will soon have to let her go for real.
In the room, I hug her and kiss her cheek and she says, now embarrassed and looking at her roommate, “Mom, don’t cry here”. So I don’t. And I make my way down the stairwell, stoic and strong, and I see a dad kissing his new freshman daughter goodbye and I wonder if he is feeling as nearly-out-of-control as I. Walking toward my car, where I can officially fall apart, I have to fight down the urge—the same urge that I had when dropping off my other two at college—the urge to turn around and climb back up those steps and rescue them. It seems so instinctual and primal but I fight it off because I know it is not what they need. They need freedom, not mothering; wings, not tethers.
Finally, I reach the car and the tears flow, the sobs begin, and I rehearse all the years in my head, wanting to rock her in the rocking chair to make everything all right again but fully knowing that it is me who needs the rocking—not her.
The two hour drive home is sober and part way through, we stop and buy me a Diet Coke because this is what I do to medicate my pain, though it doesn’t really help because I am all slobbery and sniffly and it’s hard to taste anything at all. But I think it might numb something, and I suck on the straw and let my mind ruminate on all the changes that are happening and how terrible I am at adjustments and I feel sorry for myself.
This is how I deal with this unwelcome event. I CRY LIKE A BABY EVERY TIME. I haven’t yet figured out how to be more grown up about the whole thing, but I think that’s OK because after I go home and mope for awhile and sit with the cats, and after my fragility wears off and I quit breaking down every time someone mentions her name, then I’m good (although, today, my first day with only three at the supper table, I did go and look in her room several times and got weepy, so I went and found a cat and held it tight, against it’s will, until I could function again).
That’s the story, folks, and I wish I could say I am getting stronger and better at this letting go thing, but I’m not (see how pathetic I was with Luke and Tess). And I still have one more left. I’m sure that one—the last one--will be a doozy as well.
This mothering thing is hard because I will never stop being their mother. But now, ‘tis the season for releasing, not rocking. It’s time for stretching and pulling and creating a new life independent of one another.
And eventually, I will be OK with that too.
Just give me a little time.
And a few cats.
And maybe a Diet Coke with good ice.