“Don’t cry because it’s over, be happy that it happened,” my older son preached to me nearly every time he saw me for weeks after my daughter left for college. Even if my eyes weren’t filled with tears (I really tried to cry privately), he could see that there was sadness and loss that I was feeling deep from within. “She’s gone but she’s not GONE,” was the message my brain kept sending to my heart. I talked to many moms who forged this trail before me; who sent their children off to that never-never land place they call college. I heard, “It feels like someone died, like you are in mourning. You walk into their room and just weep. You kind of wander around in a fog for a while. But it does get better with time. And then when they come home again, it reminds you that it was definitely time for them to go.” I also heard, “I was so happy for my daughter and felt like I did my job in raising her. Now she’s off doing what she is supposed to be doing and that makes me feel good.”
I would put myself right smack dab in the middle of those two sentiments.
It has been exactly one month since I left her in that Ann Arbor parking lot across the street from her dorm and I am just now able to write down how it feels to launch a child. Although, ironically, I recently heard author Wendy Mogel speak and I had a chance to chat with her briefly. “I just launched my first child,“ I told her. “Did she graduate from high school or college,” she asked as she signed my copy of her recent book, Blessings of a B- (fantastic read, by the way). “High school,” I said with a questioning smile. “She’s not launched,” she said with such authority that it took me aback. She recommended a book called “Letting Go” by Karen Levin Coburn http://amzn.to/16VPYnG , which talks about the various stages your child goes through when in college, some of which can be very difficult as your child is trying to navigate the world as a young adult. I wasn’t sure if hearing this from Dr. Mogel made me feel any better or worse.
When doing research for my book, I interviewed many moms about the process of letting go. Some of my favorite responses include:
“The letting go process is sort of like walking off a cliff and praying you land safely! Or, letting a bird fly free, hoping it travels in the right direction. This is what we have all worked so hard for, to let our kids go, experience life...we just pray we gave them the foundation they need to be successful on their own terms. Sometimes it is very hard to parent while on the sidelines of college. Issues can be tough. Just remember you did the best job possible to get your kids where they are and hopefully they will take it the rest of the way—and they need to.” (Mother of three children, ages 23, 20, and 17, married 27 years)
“They always see you and need you in some sort of Mommy capacity. It's the hugest relationship of their life, whether they realize it or not. So smile and give the independence and try to keep the advice in the solicited category, but also feel free to smirk a bit when they still need you, which they will. And realize they may still act like a baby around you sometimes. You are their safe place.” (Mother of three children, ages 19, 15 and 7, married 20 years)
“I don’t really think you ever really let go. It’s reorganization. It’s just a different way of thinking about things and shelving things. The worries…I do think they become bigger in some ways. You are not worried that they are going to get hit on the playground but you worry for their safety out in the world. You hope that you are still the voice inside their head that guides them when they are making decisions.” (Mother of three children, 21, 19, and 17, married 22 years)
As for me, I am still somewhat raw with emotion and yet, am finding my way to embrace the letting go process, which, in my opinion, cannot be rushed. I just recently stopped automatically pulling out six placemats when I set the table for dinner. I still find myself wandering around the grocery store, feeling a little lost as my daughter was the one with the STRONGEST opinions about what food MUST be in the pantry and in the refrigerator, and what she would and wouldn’t eat for dinner. I just booked her ticket to come home for fall break and when searching for flights, I habitually typed in round trip from Minneapolis to Detroit. After a few minutes, I stopped in my tracks and stared at the screen. “She is not traveling from Minneapolis, she lives in Michigan,” I had to remind myself. I also caught myself saying to a friend when she asked if I could go for a walk on a recent Sunday, “Well, Soph will be home studying, so I can leave the younger kids home with her.” And I finally re-patterned my brain to stop thinking that she was going to walk through the door when I heard the chime that goes off every time a door in our house is opened.
Letting her go was indeed very painful for me. Moreso than I thought it would be. My acupuncturist suggested that there should be a ritual for moms when their child leaves the nest. Moms need time and space to allow themselves to deal with the separation. They need not be immediately thrust back into life and almost shamed for feeling sadness and loss. They are almost expected to shake off any sadness and to feel overjoyed that they have a kid in college. “She’s super happy, right? She’s doing great, right? Aren’t you sooooo happy for her,” wonderfully good-intentioned people would ask. Yep, she is and I am. Yet, I was sad too. For as much as I knew it was time for her to go, the reality of her leaving knocked me off balance…for a while.
People say that it takes about a month to regain your stability, and this was right on for me. Time has truly been a blessing, and I can now say that I have transitioned to a new normal. And it feels good. With the support of family and friends, I am now able to say without crying (most of the time), “My daughter is away at college.” My family is happy and adjusted at home, and Sophie and I have figured out our mother-daughter long distance rhythm via text, face time, email and phone calls. I try to give her space and she tries to connect when she has time. It works...for now.
I realize that there will be many more transitions that I will go through with her, and with the other three kids, but this one was momentous for me, and I am grateful to be on the other side of it.
I did cry (a lot) because it was over, HOWEVER, I am eternally grateful and overjoyed that it happened…And, in a slightly different configuration…continues to happen.