I have seen three sons off to college and each time my heart broke and I beat myself up for feeling this way. As each college drop off approached I listened to the chorus of those who reminded me that this was college, a good thing, a great thing, and that my pride in my son’s next step should minimize the pain I was feeling.
I told myself that grieving was selfish, I should be happy for my kid and even happy for myself. I reminded myself that wallowing in sadness was self-indulgent, the prerogative of a mom who had been fortunate enough to see her kid through to this next wonderful step in their life.
And then I cried.
I cried in the grocery store, I cried in my car and I couldn’t set foot in my son’s room fearing a flood of tears. I was mourning but never felt I had the right to that mourning. Why should I grieve about something good?
This year I am taking a son back to college for his sophomore year. And while I won’t lie and say this doesn’t make me sad, the overwhelming sadness I felt last year is gone. Did I get used to him being gone last year? A bit. Did I just come to grips with my grief? A bit. Did I conquer my fear that I could not remain as close to a son I did not see every day? Ummm, partly.
What I came to realize is the pain of taking our kids to college is an emotional cocktail of worry and sadness. And worry acts on sadness like lighter fluid on a barbecue.
While we joke about worrying that our kids will not know how to do their laundry, that banter covers up much more profound worries that stretch back to the day we took them to kindergarten. We fret about our kids finding happiness. We worry about sending them into a world of strangers and hope that some of them become friends. We worry about the rejection the will inevitably suffer. We hope that they will find academic interests and challenges but worry that those challenges might be overwhelming. We worry about their health because they seem to get sick as often as they did in kindergarten and there is little that we can do to help. We worry about sexual assault, drugs, and alcohol abuse. We know they handled high school, but this is the big time. We worry that we shouldn’t worry. We tell ourselves that they are 18, an adult, no…a teen, no…our child, all at the same time.
What happens sophomore year? The worry lessens. Our kids have found some friends, they have some activities and they rose to the academic challenge of freshman year. If that didn’t happen, then they have moved on in some way and they are older and wiser and so are we.
Freshman year they had days when they were lonely, homesick or just felt lost. They called with a tentative tone in their voice looking for a bit of love and reassurance. They called because they were sick and unsure exactly how to take care of themselves or when to go to the doctor. They got rejected, by a club or a love interest or a potential friend. But they survived and so did we.
We don’t love them less or miss them any less as they go back for a second year. Yet, that sharp wincing pain we felt last year, the one that so often brought us to tears has died down. We have told them things we needed them to know. Facts that were unknowable, how they would thrive and learn and grow, are known. We hurt less because we worry less and we are stronger because we can see that they are stronger.