“Please tell me it gets easier.”
For any parent who’s already sent one child off to college, this is our frantic plea after their first drop-off. We desperately long for a friend or family member to reassure us that YES! – with each successive goodbye, it will get easier, and there won’t be as many tears that fall, and we will never again feel that wretched pit of sorrow in our stomach.
Well, do you want the good news or the bad news first?
Just this morning, I watched my daughter depart from our home, headed to the airport to fly back to campus for her final semester of college. We both had tears in our eyes as she hugged me, her sleepy brother, and her hesitant dog, who habitually becomes uneasy every time there’s a suitcase by the door.
I squinted into the orange glare of the rising sun on a chilly desert morning, as my husband’s car pulled away and I was abruptly transported back to that muggy afternoon three and a half years ago, as my girl and I stood in a dorm parking lot, tightly clinging to each other, unable to utter a single word as we both gave into our combined heartache and fears. There wasn’t enough Kleenex in the world that day to absorb the tears that streamed down our faces and left spreading splotches on our shirts.
So, here is the good news that I can promise you.
After the first couple of farewells, that physical gut-punch of your child’s exodus will indeed diminish. Our human bodies and brains are wonderfully resilient that way. The metaphysical hole that is created when your child first leaves slowly begins to close-in upon itself, healing like a hollow wound does.
Those primal, parental fears lesson as well. By the time your child has finished a few semesters of college, you are secure in knowing that they can indeed live just fine without your daily presence. They can and do move out into the world and create new friendships, engage in difficult classes and jobs, and not just survive – but thrive. The oftentimes “silly” worries of that first year have now burned off like delicate clouds on a summer day.
And best of all, you grasp the realization that when they are gone, time moves forward quickly. The world continues to turn. You no longer need to count days in your head or mark up a calendar with their every return date. It sometimes seems like they are in a revolving glass door, smiling faces back before you have a chance to fully readjust.
You will build up an innate confidence knowing that you will see them again soon, whether that means in a couple of months or not again for almost a full year. They are adults and you find yourself giving them the space and deference they deserve. And oh my, does that feel good.
But this beautiful rose of discovery does undeniably have its barbed thorn. Just as the separations get easier in certain ways, I have found that they simultaneously get more difficult as well.
I’ll just come right out and say it: I like my kids a whole lot more now!
Of course, I have loved them each day of their lives, but truthful parents readily admit that there are moments in every child’s life where we just don’t really like them. Toddlers and teenagers have reputations for a reason!
I find those temporary moments of dislike are so rare now, and as fleeting as a frightened cat. My adult children are so many kinds of wonderful at this age.
When I am lucky enough to spend time with them now, laughter washes over me constantly. I know this will make me sound like I’m 80 years old, but they absolutely “keep me young.” When they are home, there is a constant flow of pop culture discussion, the sharing of funny Tweets, and musings on how they will do things differently when they are older. There is an abundance of good-natured teasing and a shared joy in just hanging out together and playing games, watching movies, eating good food and talking.
So, when they leave, life does seem a little less entertaining and informative, because it is not just your child leaving you, but a cherished friend as well. Someone you bounce ideas off of and value their many contributions.
A different kind of sadness moves over you as you watch them close a door or round a corner without you. It is more of a longing for their emotional proximity. I don’t want them to move back in with us forever, or even for several years, but as Mr. Rogers used to inquire, I want them to be my neighbor.
I want to have them come over for dinner a few times a month. Or be able to text them to meet me for a long walk this weekend or go to that funny movie I want to see soon.
It gets much harder when you realize they are people you really, truly love to spend time with.
I will gently suggest to you though, that there are ways to deal with the emotional rollercoaster of their cyclical comings and goings. You can rather easily build up your resilience after that first, tough goodbye.
Once you’ve moved through the initial sadness, keep reminding yourself that you can handle those difficult emotions. You are competent. Use your strength to help others in the same situation and be a sounding board for their sentiments. These connections will strengthen your own coping skills.
Nurture your own talents and interests. For the truth is this: happiness, friendship, beauty and creativity are still parts of your daily life. Despite the fact that for a few brief and anguished moments, you may not think that to be possible.
The “last semester goodbye” that I experienced with my first-born child today was a unique and extra bittersweet exchange. The uncertainties of her future have grown exponentially, but so has my complete confidence in her abilities and independence.
My sadness was present but brief. I knew my day would still be full of interesting work and enjoyable activities, and free from useless anxiety over her next weeks and months. I have her graduation to look forward to, but more importantly, I have her friendship to cherish for the rest of my life.
Every time your college student departs, it simply provides you with yet another little explosion of love in your heart when you are reunited again.