Our lives are propelled by transitions. Sometimes they are welcome; other times, not so much. Some we choose, while others may be forced upon us. And, even though, we may know that we are entering a certain transition, that realization doesn’t necessarily make it easier to process. That is how I feel about my latest transition: my only child going off to college.
It has been more difficult than I had anticipated. Friends and family had warned me that it would be challenging. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe them, but I had difficulty connecting emotionally to the experience before it happened. My son Harry and I even spoke about it beforehand… how different life would be for both of us. And while it was satisfying to have that conversation with him, I had no idea of the loneliness I would feel after the fact. I guess that’s the disconnection between the head and heart. As D(eparture)-day for college neared, I began to feel a sense of regret and sadness rising up inside, along with a dreaded feeling of an imminent ending. A part of my life was coming to a close, and would never be what it was again.
I know it sounds melodramatic. As parents, we try to align our parenting with our children’s specific needs and their age and maturity. Now, after eighteen years–not to mention the months in the womb—my son was taking his big step toward independence. My almost two-decades of living with him was coming to end, and as a single mother, I knew that my home life would feel the reverberation of his absence. Of course, his life would undergo tremendous changes as well, but he would be surrounded by a roommate, dorm mates, teammates, students, instructors and professors, basically a whole new world. In my case, home was going to mean me and my fluffy Maine coon Twyla.
D-day came, and I am pleased to report that it could not have gone more smoothly. Both his father and I felt good about his new environment, which we found welcoming, safe, stimulating and engaging. When it came time for us to leave, I hugged my son, and I think I told him I would miss him, but honestly, that moment is a blur. I don’t remember exactly what I said because I was trying my best not to break down. And I didn’t. I even managed to keep a smile on my face as I waved goodbye from the car. My smile was genuine even though my insides were tied up in knots. I tried to focus on his readiness for the experience before him, and I was truly happy and excited for him, just not for myself!
The situation really hit home later that night when I arrived back at my apartment and had to face his empty room. A disheveled space hurriedly left, an unmade bed, scattered clothes that didn’t make the college wardrobe cut, used running shoes ready for retirement, a stray sock, his old bike, a shelf laden with track and XC trophies and medals, and the corner of the room where his used skateboard decks still hang on the wall. These objects mean something to me because they mean something to him. They invoke memories of his life and our family life, which at that moment felt fragile and fragmented. There was no part of me that could rejoice in the transition as I was standing in an abandoned space in my home, my empty nest.
When I was Harry’s age, I couldn’t wait to go off to college. I don’t remember my mother crying either, or if we even spoke about what that process would mean for me and for the family. We didn’t have such conversations at home. Honestly I don’t recall any regrets about leaving home. Quite the opposite, I was ready for a new experience and new-found freedom, and I know that is Harry as well. And I couldn’t be happier with the young man my son has become and the path he has chosen to embark upon.
But where does that leave me? I am still his parent, but no longer engaged in his activities as I used to be. There will be no Saturday morning XC meets this fall, no regular weekday dinners conversing about the day, no bike rides together in Central Park or along the Hudson, and no family movie night. As I heard one parent of a college-bound freshman say with a tinge of regret, “This is my new normal.”
I see no option other than to adjust to this new independence, both his and mine. It’s up to him now to organize his schedule, make his own food choices and keep his clothes clean, or not. On my end, I have to refocus my energy and schedule my own calendar. That is supposed to be the positive spin of being an empty nester. Time once spent shopping, cooking, washing, cleaning and organizing my home has now been reduced by more than half. Eighteen-year old athletic boys take up more space, eat more food, and dirty more clothes than middle-aged women.
So why am I not embracing my new freedom or jumping for joy at the reduced housework? There is nothing appealing about having to let go of someone who brings you immense joy and fulfillment and who is so connected to your identity. I am still too worried about losing him and part of myself in the process. I know that I will not actually lose him as he takes this next step, but I find myself in need of some assurance, the kind a parent might give: “It’s hard to let go, but you can do this and it is all going to be okay.” Now, if I could just believe it and then follow it!