Last week, as my daughter left for college yet again (“when will the madness end?” was the lament I posted on Facebook after she drove off), six hundred long miles away from what I’m not sure she thinks of anymore as home (it’s her parents’ house, I bet, now — because I remember very well when this shift occurred to me, four decades ago), I found myself thinking about what it was like when she first left home, when home was still home, three years ago.
I flew with her to Connecticut that time (the only time, as it turned out, that I would ever do that, which I didn’t know then). Not only would she buy an old car for these back-and-forths, but she didn’t need me to go with her. Ever again.
Move-in day was unbearably hot and humid. We had rented a car at the airport, 30 miles from her school, and now it was jam-packed: there were the four suitcases we’d brought with us, and there were all the bags and boxes from Bed, Bath, and Beyond that we’d collected at the local store after placing our orders back at home in Ohio. When we pulled up outside the dorm, an army of student athletes descended on us. They took everything out of our arms. “What room?” they shouted at her cheerfully, and then they led her there. I went off to park the car in the visitors’ lot and then, as she began unpacking, I set out on foot for the mailroom, where all the boxes we had packed and shipped ahead were waiting. I remember muttering under my breath as I trudged up (and then down, and then up again, again and again) the hill, What a system! You’d think they’d figure something out!
Many hours later, after multiple trips under the blazing sun and in the wrong kind of shoes (who knew I’d be hiking?), all of her belongings were with her in her tiny overcrowded room, along with two other girls’ belongings. The girls were at a dorm meeting. Then there was some kind of event for all the freshmen — and then it would be time for goodbye. Already? I asked the mother of one of the roommates. But I hadn’t spent any time with Grace at all!
And I’d missed all the events designed to keep the parents out of their children’s hair (the parents who had driven, I supposed, whose move-in was accomplished swiftly by the cheerful athletes without all the extra box-hauling from the damn mailroom): the talk about what college life was like, the various lectures on various academic subjects of interest, the parents’ orientation, the address to parents by the President. I wasn’t aggrieved that I’d missed any of it (indeed, I was a little bit relieved; I taught at a college; I’d heard enough lectures by academics, enough speeches by Presidents). But there was no transition for me. I complained to the other mother, the mother of the roommate who would turn out — but none of us knew this then — to be one of Grace’s best friends, and with whom she’d live for all four years. She nodded. Tearfully, she whispered, “I feel just as spent, just as wrecked, as I did on the day she was born.”
That was it, I thought. That was exactly how I felt. Not only emotionally. Physically, too: almost as tired and just as sweaty as I’d been then (plus a lot dirtier). Every part of me hurt. I was even bleeding (but it was just my feet, blisters having managed to form and break over the course of just the one hot day, in my pretty sandals).
But on the day she was born I got to hold her in my arms — I held her in my arms for hours, for days, for weeks, nonstop — once she was here. This time I had to walk away and leave her.
I didn’t seem possible that I could, but I did. I went home and left her there. And I began to count days, then weeks since I got back into my rental car, turned the key and pulled out of my parking spot, and drove for five minutes before I had to pull over and cry. I counted the days since the last time we’d talked. I counted the weeks and then the days ahead until fall break and I counted the hours of a four-day break and how many of them it was reasonable for me to expect to spend in her company? One in the morning, one at night? Expect as little as possible. Be pleasantly surprised if there happens to be more.
It sounds like a bad romance, doesn’t it? Or maybe less a bad romance than a one-sided one, the kind in which the beloved cares for you — of course I care for you, I always will — but not “that way,” not with the burning intensity you care with. The kind of romance in which you try so hard to be cool (you don’t want to hover, you don’t want to seem needy or desperate) even as you live with constant longing. The kind that features the sharp pleasure of the unexpected sighting. (On Facebook one morning, a mobile upload photo time-stamped 3:11 AM, “Great Gatsby Party” — and there she is in the little black dress she didn’t think she’d need! The one I bought her for her eighteenth birthday and that she hadn’t packed, so I did, sticking it in one of the boxes we shipped UPS along with the framed photos of her high school friends, the fedora, the lavender lamp with the frilly shade. She looks fantastic in the picture! She looks — I think, but of course it’s impossible to tell for sure — happy.)
Or maybe it’s more like a breakup. The way missing her changes everything. The way you wonder, at odd moments throughout the day: what’s she doing now? The way you can’t really picture it — you don’t know enough. You’re not supposed to know that sort of thing anymore. The way that hurts, too. And the way everything reminds you of her and makes you cry: the supermarket, the sight of things you would have bought if she still lived with you.
On the other hand, it isn’t like a romance at all — a bad one or a one-sided one, or a breakup either — because you’re happy about all this. Not pretending to be happy, not being brave, but genuinely happy. And proud — proud of her, proud of yourself. Proud because apparently you’ve done your job right. You loved your beloved so much, and so well, you prepared her for the next step — the first step toward living independently of you (and if that were what romances were about, marriage would be extinct). You’re not supposed to hear from her every day — and maybe not even once a week (who made that once-a-week rule, anyway?) — and you’re not supposed to have the slightest idea what the day-by-day, hour-by-hour — or even the big picture — of her life is like, because if you knew all that, then she wouldn’t be doing what she’s supposed to be doing. Living her own life. Growing up. Handling her own problems when they come up. Figuring things out without you — talking to other people when she needs to talk something over. The days of her talking things over to you are . . . well, okay, maybe not over (you’re pretty sure), but gone for now. It could be years. It should be years, probably.
Really, this sending your child out into the world is like nothing except what it is. That’s because motherhood has no real parallel. If it’s like anything, it’s like your child is being born again — and you, once again, have to be the one pushing her (or at the very least helping her — or at the very, very least not hindering her) as she leaves you.
From the moment my daughter was born — literally: from the moment I held her in my arms for the first time — I had been preparing myself for this moment. From the moment she was born, I knew, she was leaving me, bit by bit.