There are experiences many of us have which we’re not supposed to talk about, especially not publicly. These experiences invariably hit me harder than most of life’s challenges. I always end up thinking, as I’m going through them, one profound, eloquent thought: “Why the HELL didn’t anyone warn me about this?!”
Then there are other experiences we have that we’re expected to utterly lie about. For example, when you’re a young mother and an older women reminds you, over and over again, that this is THE BEST time of your life, and you absolutely MUST enjoy every minute. And you feel like you’re obligated to reply “Gosh, I don’t sleep anymore and showering alone is a gigantic victory, but golly, I’m happy 100% of the time. 100%! I mean, who needs sleep?”
Sure, with our very closest friends we laugh and cry and wax philosophical about how the hell one baby, one tiny little being we love so much, can be so unbelievably disruptive, so very challenging at times. But in public, we lie… big. Once in a while we do slip up, mumbling we would trade our right arm for one uninterrupted trip to the bathroom. These moments usually make people very, very uncomfortable.
This brings me to what I experienced last weekend, which will probably make people uncomfortable. This particular life experience, which no one seems to talk about without some serious sugarcoating, was dropping my daughter off at college. For those who don’t want the saccharine, Facebook-friendly version of this experience, I suggest you stop reading. Now.
I parent four kids. This was the third kid I’ve dropped off. My nephew Eric moved in with us his senior year of high school, and college ended up being only one hour away. I cried after dropping him off, but in many ways I was mourning not having him in my life earlier. My oldest son Jonah is a champion cyclist. By ninth grade I had acclimated to him traveling to races. By tenth grade Jonah was living in Vermont, attending a boarding school for athletes.
Ella, my daughter, was different. Besides a few weeks traveling throughout Europe, Ella was home. A lot. I consider myself a fairly self-aware person, and I’d like to say I read all the books and articles, mindfully preparing for Ella’s flight from the nest. I didn’t. In fact, I did exactly the opposite. I went into denial. Serious denial. As the days flew by I kept convincing myself it wasn’t a big deal. It would be hard, but I would be OK.
Then, in what seemed like a fraction of a second, she was leaving in two days. It hit me like a freight train. I sat down on my bed, started to cry, and found myself wholly unable to stop. I cried so much I began to worry I might never stop, wondering if anyone in history had actually cried themselves to death. It wasn’t possible, was it? Apparently I will never learn the answer to this question as I eventually did stop crying.
For the next two days I kept it together, sort of, except when I saw anything which reminded me of how much I love being Ella’s mom. This was just about everything.
Ella’s friends came over. I cried.
Ella picked something up at the store for me. I cried.
Ella’s hair smelled nice when I hugged her. I cried.
When we went shopping for clothes I cried every time I saw a mother carrying a baby.
“Why, WHY are there babies everywhere today?!! Is the universe torturing me on PURPOSE?”
“No, Mom,” Ella said with a look of bemused concern, “You’re just noticing babies more because you’re sad I’m leaving.”
Then, in what seemed like moments after my crying jag on the bed, the day came. Time to go. I’m proud to say I was able to keep it together, sort of… until after we unloaded her stuff and finished our goodbye dinner.
That’s when I found myself standing on a sidewalk in lower Manhattan, clutching her face in my hands, babbling like an idiot, “Be careful of cars and bikes, they could hit you! And don’t go to parties without a buddy! And, and, and don’t take a drink from a guy you don’t know because he could put one of those pills in it and, and…”
“I know, I know Mom,” Ella said with a mixture of love and pity.
At this moment I began the longest run-on sentence of my life. I knew once the sentence was over, she really did have to go. But perhaps I had finally found the solution. What if the sentence never ended?
“And read the letter I wrote even though I meant it to be a page but then it turned out to be seven pages, and I meant to give you ten pieces of advice in it but I couldn’t help it so I gave you fifteen and…”
“It’s OK, Mom.”
“And remember just because I’m crying doesn’t mean I’m not happy for you because I’m so happy for you and…” At this point I’m sobbing. “…and don’t conflate, I mean never conflate me being sad with me not being happy for you, or me not wanting you to go and…”
Ella smiled at me and nodded. I started crying even harder because I was so proud she knew the word “conflate” and isn’t she amazing and aren’t I lucky she’s my daughter and OH MY GOD SHE’S REALLY LEAVING!
Eventually, I had to take a breath. As I sucked in air I finally noticed how Ella was looking at me. I saw in her thoughtful, beautiful, fierce eyes one simple, unshakable truth: She loves me so, and no distance can or will change that.
I pulled myself together. The sentence has to end sometime.
I slowed myself down, holding her face gently in my hands, looking straight at her. Tears were still flowing pretty freely, but I was steady.
“Ella, know this. You are one of the greatest gifts of my life. I said this in my letter better than I can say it now, but you are an unstoppable and brave and amazing force. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t let anyone ever take that from you. I’m so proud of you. I love you so much.”
We looked into each others eyes, me holding her face in my hands. Time seemed to slow down as a strange thought occurred to me: this felt a lot like the moment right after you have a baby. It’s hopeful. It’s painful. It’s an entirely unknown stage in a woman’s life, and while children are alive moments before birth, once babies breathe in air for the first time, it’s a whole new ballgame. You want to protect your baby from everything, but know that isn’t possible, and it wouldn’t be fair to try. And you’re almost taken aback by the love you feel for another human, so intense, and so beautiful.
I let go of Ella’s face, giving her one last hug. I smelled her hair. I kissed her cheek. I smiled at her. She smiled back at me… and smiled at my ex-husband. (Oh yeah, he was there. That was unexpectedly very nice, but I digress.) Then she smiled at me one more time, turned around, and walked away.
And we watched, watched as she walked towards her dorm room, growing smaller and smaller. She crossed the street and my ex said softly, without taking his eyes of her, “She looked both ways at the crosswalk.”
And then, she was gone.
Later that evening, I called a girlfriend, and then another, and another. How did they get through this?
This, almost verbatim, is what every last Mom told me: ”Oh, yeah, it was horrible. Probably the worst day of my life. But it’s okay. It gets better. Don’t worry. It’s still hard, but getting better.”
I asked, with a glimmer of hope, WHEN exactly this “getting better” thing happens. The consistent answer was something like this, “Not that long. This part only lasts six to nine months, if you do a lot of therapy.”
What the hell? Really? I’d be feeling this way for SIX TO NINE MONTHS?? I had been BETRAYED! Why didn’t anyone warn me about this? WHY do I see posts on Facebook with parents looking gleefully at the camera, hugging their kids goodbye, with the happy caption, “Johnny’s off to college! Yay!!! So excited for him.” Is this some grand, global conspiracy to hide the truth so people aren’t deterred from having kids and the human race continues? I mean, really! What the hell!?
Feeling completely hopeless after these conversations, I sat alone, crying, feeling supremely sorry for myself. After a solid fifteen minutes of this, two gigantic truths slowly began forming in my mind. Finally, it hit me. I had not been duped. Not at all.
Truth Number One: Of course women my age don’t want to talk about this. Who wants to talk about something this painful you’re still working through, something that’s “still hard but getting better.” So we don’t talk about it. And in the age of social media we cope, partly, by going on Facebook and proclaiming how very, VERY happy we are. We are happy, damn it, 100% percent of the time. 100%!
And Truth Number Two… I was wrong. One group of people DO try to warn us: older women. They try when our babies are young, when we still have time with them, when we aren’t yet in denial. They try to deliver us a critical message in a bottle, and they try hard. They stop young mothers on the streets, in grocery stores, at the swimming pool. They block our strollers so we can’t pass, bend down and smile at our babies. Then they look right at us, saying softly, “Enjoy every moment. It goes so fast.” We don’t hear them. Not really. In fact often, we’re annoyed. We’re so tired. Can’t we just keep going with our day? We have things to DO!
It turns out, like so many hard lessons, this is something we can’t learn until we experience it, try as those older and wiser attempt to warn us. Every wise old woman on the street doesn’t compare to standing on the sidewalk, watching my daughter walk away from me and into her new and wonderful life.
And that’s why I’m writing this. Unlike the great cocktail party in cyberspace that is social media, human beings have big, gigantic feelings sometimes, and there are predictable moments when these feelings will happen. Sending your kid off to college is one of them. It’s a big one. And if we don’t talk about it, parents are going to continue to be hit with freight trains and feel like they are the only weirdo out there who can’t “handle” one of the greatest transitions in our lives.
So, here’s my advice, advice I vow to remember in three years when my youngest, my sweet son Lucian, leaves the nest. When you drop your kid off at college, remember this: You will feel as if part of your heart quite possibly was ripped out of your body. If this is your only child, or your youngest, you may feel as if your entire heart is just… gone… and the hole in your chest may feel unbearable.
Know that you are not alone in these feelings. This sucks. For all of us. Take heart that you chose to love another human being, and loving someone is perhaps the most vulnerable, beautiful, painful, and courageous acts a human being can choose to experience. Love, in all its forms, is what makes life worth living.
And to the young parents, remember this… you don’t have to enjoy every minute. Let’s face it, that’s bullshit. Being a parent is magical at times, but it’s also hard as hell, and it will continue to be. Anyone who tells you they loved every minute of parenting is LYING, either to you or to themselves.
But do try, if you can, to appreciate every minute. Every damn one. Tell your child you love them more than you think you should, so they carry that love with them everywhere they go. A child who knows they are loved is an adult who will get back up again when life knocks them down. Do this as much as you can when you have them under your roof, and do it often.
Because before you know you’ll be watching your heart walk down the street and into their new life, knowing it was worth every last moment, and every last tear.