Nesting In Reverse: Preparing For When A Child Leaves For College

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 
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In the last weeks of my first pregnancy, it finally hit me, just as I had been told it would. I had even been asked by friends and family if I had gotten it yet. “No,” I shrugged, “I haven’t.” Until one day, I did. I woke up, and just like that, I had the unmistakable urge to turn my disheveled and disorganized house into a home worthy of a newborn baby. The nesting instinct had finally, and most assuredly, made its prenatal arrival, and I succumbed to its persistent itch like nobody’s business.

Oddly enough, the first thing I had an overwhelming desire to do was wash the front door of my house. I waddled out there, my swollen belly barely allowing my body to bend at the middle to dunk a sponge into a bucket, and I started scrubbing. Of course it would be the front door, for this was the physical and metaphorical threshold my first child would be crossing soon, and it had to be gleaming, welcoming, presentable, and nothing less than perfectly polished. It was, after all, my first baby’s entryway into what would be a blessed and jubilant childhood, and I was going to make damn sure it was worthy to swing open to the cozy nest that awaited him.

Now I am approaching the finish line of childhood for that same baby. He will be heading off to college soon, and a funny thing is starting to happen. I’m nesting again—however, this time in reverse. As he gets ready to walk out that now dirty front door, I have an overwhelming urge to make everything in his home, this house, perfect again. So perfect, in fact, that maybe he won’t want to leave. I have the desire to create a home environment so rich in love and joy that it will only be the perfect memories, the ones he will be proud to carry with him when he walks out that dilapidated front door, that he will take with him to college. It’s like my last gasp of childrearing, or mile 23 of a marathon; I’m exhausted but inspired, and I want to go out with a bang. I want to finish strong.

I’m yelling at him less and trying to hug him more. I feel the need to take care of and do things for him that I’m not supposed to at his age—this is when I need to let him fail and let him fall, in order to produce a more independent adult, right? Sometimes I wonder why we are in such a hurry for our teens to start adult-ing. They have the rest of their lives to do laundry, make dinner, make beds, make a living. At ages 17 and 18, do they really need to do all of those things? Yes, of course they do, but still. Still. He’s my baby. And the real world is cruel, and very soon he’ll be jumping into those shark-filled waters without his “mom” lifejacket on. Gulp.

With the realization that my formative years of childrearing are almost complete, another oddity is happening. In almost hi-def recollection, I’m remembering all of my horrible mothering moments, and the guilt I am feeling is swallowing my confidence whole. It’s borderline suffocating. All of the horrific “I have had enough!” tantrums I threw are flooding back into my mind. The moments he witnessed me crying on the floor in exhaustion, anger, sadness, and frustration. The times my brutal criticisms of him were honestly uncalled for, the times my cheerful positive parenting attitude and patience was as depleted as a bread aisle during a blizzard. The life lessons left untaught and all the remorseful occasions that often left both of us bitter and in tears. I have also begun thinking, What have I done? How did I let my son witness my deficiencies as a parent so clearly? Please tell me that makes me human, and not a failure. Will redemption ever come?

Paired with my striking regret over all the things I failed to do, comes the other pivotal parenting questions: Have I done enough? Has the exhaustive list of everything he needs to have learned and experienced as a child been achieved? Did I complete and pass the “Produce an Amazing Adult” assignment?

The funny thing is, I really don’t know yet. He may be on the cusp of 18, the age society deems him an adult, but in the greater span of a lifetime, he is, in fact, still a baby. And to me, his mother, he always will be. I never understood how, when I became pregnant with my first child, my mother blurted out, “My baby is having a baby!” but now I wholeheartedly get it. We are always somebody’s baby, and we are always a mother to a “baby” whether they are 4 of 40, and that is both a blessing and a curse. For the worry never, ever, goes away, and neither does the need to ensure that baby never forgets his first home, and that no matter what, he can always come back. That shiny door, the one he came passed through as a newborn, the one in which time has now tarnished, will forever remain open for him. Forever.

Back when I was nesting that first time, as I washed that front door and waited for my first baby to enter the world, I was filled with ignorance and bliss, worrying about the most ridiculous of things and wondering what kind of mother I would be and what kind of child he would be. Conversely, now that I sit and wonder what kind of mother I was and what kind of adult he will be, the concern is no less fruitless and euphoric, and truly, its outcome is still out of my control.

And it’s time to let it all go, and let him go with it.

In what remains of the time I have before my little bird flies the coop, I’m gonna fluff the heck out of the feathers in this nest. I plan on regretting less, anguishing over the past even less, and instead, anticipating my son’s future with more hope and faith that I ever have before. No, my work here is not done. Neither is he done being raised, inasmuch as I am done mothering, but for now, I feel like I’m cruising on the downhill, if only for a little while. And this finish line, the one he crosses into college, is one I desire more than anything to coast into with joyful exuberance, even if it means the door to this unknown new future goes completely unwashed.

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