Ten years ago this August I was preparing to send my first born son Kyle off to college at the University of Central Florida. For about 300 days a year, Kyle was going to be 9 hours and 7 minutes away by car, 1 hour and 50 minutes away by plane and 13 hours and 4 agonizing minutes away by train. Not that I had counted. Though the thought of paying out of state tuition was scary, the thought of how little time I had left with Kyle under my watchful eye – and how much space would soon separate us – terrified me even more.
The crying began two days before Kyle turned 18. I was in the grocery store, rounding the corner of aisle 11. I came across the cute little jars of baby food, the pacifiers, and the diapers. My emotions started reeling like a grocery cart with a bum wheel.
I used to be the one to feed him, to soothe him and to well…you know…wipe him.
I felt sick and sad. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t wiped him in 15 years and that he wouldn’t hold my hand or hug me even if I paid him. By the time I got to the frozen food section I had the ugly cries. Tator Tots and Bomb Pops shouldn’t be so damned tragic. Clean-up on aisle 18.
As Freshman Move-In day approached I felt a total lack of control. My world was spinning furiously as Kyle prepared to take flight. He felt all grown up and I still wanted to stroke his hair and read him Winnie the Pooh. I did what any rational mother would do when she feels like she’s losing one of her children. I got really clingy, kinda bitchy and squeezed my maternal arms around him so hard that he couldn’t breathe.
Don’t you need to go to bed? Shouldn’t you be up by now? You aren’t eating enough. You’re eating way too much. Comb your hair. Get a haircut. Take the trash out. You won’t be able to play video games like that in college. I know things. College is hard. Be home by midnight. No wait, I meant 10:30.
I wrote down his work schedule and made sure he wasn’t late. I kept track of all of his doctor appointments. I bugged him to do stupid chores around the house. I nagged because I still could. I micro-managed because I cared. The thought of him managing without me rendered me immediately and completely obsolete. And me being obsolete in his life, well, no, no no…that just would not do.
Yet, the previous 18 years had been precisely about this moment. We invest 18 years raising our children to be smart, kind, mature, responsible adults. Our goal is to send them out into the world independent and self-sufficient. The measurement of our success is their ability to get through the day without our help. If they succeed, we’ve succeeded. I wanted all of that, but not yet. It felt way too soon. I needed him to need me. Kyle was ready, but I was not. I prepared him well but, somehow along the way, I forgot to prepare myself. I looked at him and still saw the little boy that liked to snuggle me. Hadn’t we just baked cookies with sprinkles, flour on his nose and completely covering his OskKosh overalls? It felt like yesterday Kyle had been dancing and chortling to “Jolly Holiday” from Mary Poppins and now the only thing that made him dance and chortle was the thought of being far away from me. Come August, he would not just be wriggling away from a hug, he would be running towards his future 603 miles away from home. It would take every ounce of strength I had not to run after him and remind him to tie his shoelaces while simultaneously trying to wipe his nose. I’m nothing if not an overachiever.
I spent the entire summer conflicted instead of enjoying the time we had left. Amidst all of the sadness that consumed me with this transition, I was also happy. I was proud of what my son had already accomplished in life and truly thrilled for where he was going. Kyle had made good choices and his college was one of those. But why couldn’t I stop crying?
June and July consisted of me earning my final credits in love, self-sacrifice and letting go. Those last classes are always a bitch. But I began to realize that freeing our children to soar into the world is OUR graduation. And though we don’t cut ties completely, the rope begins to slacken and unravel. We lend our children to strangers, we entrust them to themselves. We hope that when they’re away from home they’ll remember who they are and the values they were raised with. We dream that they will call not only when they need money, but when they’re in over their head. We trail behind where they can’t always see us, ready to catch them if they fall. We want to be needed, but at the same time, we need to start letting go. We come to accept that to some extent, the way the wind blows is out of our control. Three words. It ain’t easy.
Move-In day came and went. We got Kyle settled and drove to a nearby hotel to get some sleep. When we arrived the next morning to take Kyle to breakfast, I asked to use his bathroom. Kyle’s eyes got wide and he told me it might be best to wait until we got to the restaurant. A little bit of prying and he spilled the beans. His roommate had gotten drunk, and “re-decorated” the entire bathroom. Three times. Kids these days. Kyle asked what he should do.
Ahhhh…the sweet sound of need. I was giddy. The situation called for a Target run. We bought all of the supplies to clean the bathroom and a new shower curtain and left them propped up against his suitemate’s door. Subtlety has never been my strong suit. It made Kyle laugh, and I could see that he loved me, and was going to miss me. He even needed me now and then. And I hurt just a little bit less.
Today, many 18-year olds are counting down the days until they leave home and move into their dorms. Most parents are marking off their calendars for very different reasons. My wish for us all is that our children understand just a fraction of our sadness and why we squeeze them so tight before we let them go. And, may you as parents try not to hug them too long or hold on too tightly when they slam that dorm room door shut.