As of tomorrow, I have a Freshman in College.
I know the best gift you can give your child is that of Roots and Wings — but wait, now he wants to use those wings? I have 10 weeks before my life and his change profoundly when he leaves for college. And then what? He’s ready, but I’m not quite there yet. As I’ve said multiple times over the last year: I have mixed feelings about this.
“The days are long, but the years are short,” said Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. She wasn’t kidding. But no one in the midst of those long days wants to be told something like this: “You’re life is going to change.” (duh) “Don’t blink.” (really?) “They grow up so fast.” (it can’t be *that* fast) But we don’t want to hear any of that as we gawk in wonder at the new life we hold in our arms, when we’re knee-deep in toddlers, in the thick of it with newly-minted teenagers, or beginning to learn to ‘let go’ with high schoolers. We don’t have any more room in our heads — or hearts — to keep those kinds of ideas and feelings front and center. We went into parenthood absolutely convinced we could, and would, be present in each moment. How could we know that’s just. not. possible?
We also may not want to admit that “the years being short” is exactly what we’re afraid of. That deep down we know Life is going to laugh at us as we make plans, only to watch those plans go every which way but our own. Perhaps we’re not as much “afraid” as we are “uncertain” how our own hearts are going to change, not only when these tiny people arrive — but also when they leave to continue their own journey.
I always knew that my son was going to grow up and graduate from high school and go to college (barring any unforseen hurdles). But somewhere between middle school angst and high school politics, we entered a time warp wherein the high school years seem to have developed much shorter days than the years before. Is that because he was doing so much more on his own, and I used that time to get caught up on my own life again? Only to turn around and see him taller than I am, his jawline defined, driving himself to and from his activities, shaving, working part-time…
Did that all really happen in just a mere three or four years?
Indeed, maybe that’s what is so surprising for us as parents: all that major changing takes place in such a short amount of time in relation to their previous growth, except when they are brand new. They’ve been reliant on us for so long: for love, food, shelter, comfort; ultimately tagging along on our errands; waiting their turn as we worked out carpools and event schedules; even planning for a night out without them was more about them (i.e. remember trying to find a sitter?). Then, overnight — literally, OVERNIGHT — on their 16th birthday, they become so much more self-sustaining.
I really don’t remember what my life was like before I was a parent. You hear that a lot from moms and dads. But it’s not really accurate in describing this path we’re taking. I have memories, of course, of doing things with friends and family before I became a Mom. What I don’t know is the feeling of the long-term physical absence of someone who became this close to my heart and soul — who is made of me. How do you prepare for saying ‘goodbye’ to part of yourself?
My friend K calls this “pre-mourning.” Her son is the same age as mine, will be graduating the same day as Z, and will leave for college this summer, too. K and I have chatted about the upcoming metamorphoses — for the boys and ourselves. She was warned about the dangers of pre-mourning, namely beginning the process of saying goodbye far too soon and missing out on — and being present in — the months preceding her son’s flight out of the nest. I kept that advice close to my own heart over the last year, but it’s difficult to keep it from taking over the moments, though: at “the last” birthday celebration at home; “the last” Christmas where we’ll all be here to decorate the tree; “the last” field trip; “the last” game of the season; “the last” “the last” “the last…”
And yet… I’m so incredibly excited for Z!
College! Getting to know so many new people, from more places than ever before! Fall football games and all-nighters; school traditions and trying new things; forming friendships that he’ll have far into his future; meeting those special few who become mentors helping to draft his career path.
How can I feel so excited and sad at the same time? I’ve never felt it on this level before. And I know this feeling will take on an even different texture as we pack him up to move into his new home in August. Author Dr. Brené Brown describes it this way: “There’s a combination of joy and grief that can take your breath away.” And that’s exactly how I’m feeling — two opposite emotions at the same time are taking my breath away.
There’s no rule that says we are only allowed to feel one thing at a time — but that’s how we want it to work. Otherwise it becomes overwhelming. And no one wants to feel overwhelmed, because then we’re not in control. Guess what? We parents of older teens haven’t been in control for a long time. It’s just now becoming apparent to me. And I am overwhelmed with giant waves of feelings, all at once, out of the blue, sometimes at the strangest times. All I can do is ride it out.
I have no illusions that I’ll be able to get through graduation nor moving day without crying. Fortunately, Z knows I’m like this, so he expects it. But even he may be surprised at how many tissues I’ll go through this time, all the while smiling like a maniac because I’m so damned proud. He may chalk that up to Mum being a hormonal idiot. That’s ok. I can’t explain it to him, not yet. Maybe if he becomes a parent, and on the eve of his child graduating I can say “I know,” and hand him tissues.
And then we’ll talk about having mixed feelings about this.