My Semi-Empty Nest
A mother reflects on dropping her eldest off at college
Lately, I’ve been having those dreams where I’ve lost track of the baby. It’s been too long since I fed her and I can’t remember where I put her down. I am panicked. Where is she? Why isn’t she making any noise? What if it’s too late? I wake up sweaty, pulse racing, as I gradually remember that she’s not a baby anymore.
A couple of months ago, I took my little girl to another state and abandoned her there to live amongst strangers. At least that’s the way it felt. Another way to say it is that I dropped my 19-year-old daughter off at college.
In the weeks leading up to this milestone, we came up with a joke; it felt like kind of a strategy to allay our collective anxiety about what was happening. We rationalized it. Going to college isn’t really that different than, say, going to camp, right? We decided to call it camp to make it less scary. i.e. “Hey honey, have you started packing for camp yet?”
My daughter has always been fiercely independent. As a toddler, she took off in grocery stores and at parking lots. Other kids her age seemed glued to their mothers’ hips, while Hannah was always skirting away, hiding, dashing, exploring. I have a memory of watching her tiny 3-year-old form running away from me at Alki Beach. I was sitting with friends and holding Eli, then a 6-month-old baby, as Hannah got further and further away. I kept thinking she would turn around and head back. She would sense that she had gone too far and get nervous. But no. She just ran, no hint of hesitation. I finally chucked Eli at a friend and took chase.
In restaurants, Hannah toured the other tables, introducing herself to everyone; often even trying to join their party. Her dad and I joked that she was trying to get adopted.
In truth, I often felt rejected. Many of my friends’ children were entranced by their mothers; always wanting to stay near them. Espousing the idea of attachment parenting, I couldn’t help but feel that these other mothers must be doing it right, while I was clearly screwing it up. My good friend Diana (whose children were always crawling all over her) offered consolation in dark moments, describing Hannah as independent and fearless: “These are great qualities — especially for a girl!” I clung to her words. It became a sort of mantra.
As we got closer to the actuality of her moving away, the mention of it could raise a lump in my throat and bring quick, hot tears to my eyes.
So it wasn’t a surprise when Hannah announced that she wanted to go away for college. She applied exclusively to colleges out of state. I was in support of it. I thought it would be good for her — the way it was good for me. And, of course, part of the work of being a teenager is to cause discomfort and irritation, so that the separation feels easier. Hannah did a good job of this, working to individuate, constantly pointing out our differences, outlining the many ways I misunderstood her, and refusing to let me comfort her in times of distress.
It’s not that I was totally comfortable with the idea of her leaving. As we got closer to the actuality of her moving away, the mention of it could raise a lump in my throat and bring quick, hot tears to my eyes. At other times, the tensions between us made me think the distance would be good. I was all over the map.
And I wasn’t the only one. Hannah’s moods swayed wildly, one moment appreciative and loving, the next sarcastic and cold. Adolescent tantrums punctuated her last several months at home. I commented one day that it seemed like she was often angry. Remembering that I felt that way when I was her age, I mused out loud that this could just be a part of gaining independence. Like a toddler, using anger as motivation to separate physically from the parent. When Hannah heard my theory, she burst out laughing.
“So you’re saying I’m like a toddler?” she said. “That’s hilarious! It actually makes a lot of sense.” She seemed to find the analysis helpful. My daughter’s pragmatic nature astonishes me. She’s always been interested in understanding why things work the way they do.
In the days before we left to take her to school in California, I imagined myself falling apart during the process of saying goodbye. I thought that would be the hardest part, but it turned out that the most painful thing was coming home without her. I caught a glimpse of this while buying plane tickets. I was about to purchase four round-trip tickets when I suddenly realized that she would not be coming back with us. Of course! Still, it just felt wrong buying that one-way ticket.
Her happiness somehow alleviated my grief. Once I saw that she was OK, I could relax and stop worrying about her.
After leaving her, my emotions came bubbling to the surface. I cried while we waited at the airport to board our plane back to Seattle. And cried a bit more during the bumpy landing into our hometown. During those first few days at home without her, I broke down in tears every time someone asked about her. I felt her absence acutely.
But talking to her that weekend, she sounded happy. She seemed to already feel engaged with her school community and comfortable in her new home. Her happiness somehow alleviated my grief. Once I saw that she was OK, I could relax and stop worrying about her.
Saying goodbye at campus hadn’t been without its sting. We had all been working so hard to move her in — hauling boxes, moving furniture, hanging pictures and folding clothes. It was a bit claustrophobic with the four of us, plus her roommate and parents all crammed into that tiny space. We were all looking forward to getting out of there. And Hannah seemed particularly fed up with everything. When it was our prescribed time to leave, we walked together to the library, where Hannah would get some help setting up her computer. At the entrance, I stopped short and said, “Well, I guess this is it.”
“Oh! Really?” Hannah turned toward me with uncharacteristic uncertainty. For a moment, the idea of leaving her felt impossible.
“Yeah,” my husband chimed in, “We should probably head off. It’s time.” He pulled her in for a long hug. Then she turned to hug Eli while I snapped a picture.
Finally she reached for me and I clutched her to me. “Be safe, sweetie,” I whispered with a lump in my throat. “I’ll miss you.”
As we walked away from her, Eli turned with a smile and said, “Have fun at camp, Hannah! See you in a couple weeks.” And we all laughed a little to clear the tears from our eyes.
Originally published in November 2015 on Ashbetty