My Daughter’s Left for College and I’m Wondering What’s Next for Me

As the swells from a far-away motorboat reached the beach, my arms rose and fell, my legs kicked, and my body was slapped and lifted by the coming waves as I swam toward the outer limit of the lake’s roped–off area.  I reached the ropes, paused, returned. Over and over I swam — back to the beach, out to the ropes, back to the beach, out to the ropes. It was a scene I had repeated numerous versions of at the lakes, oceans, and pools of a New England summer.

At one favorite lakeside spot, I would swim between the two docks that marked off the area as being safe for swimmers. At the ocean, I plunged again and again beneath the cold waves relishing the way they broke over my head or, when the water was gentle, swam laps to nowhere keeping myself parallel with the shore.

Ocean swimming is in my New England blood.

Mornings at the local YMCA or evenings at our modest condo pool, I pushed off again and again from wall to wall as if every touch would bring me closer to something. It wasn’t exercise I was seeking, it was answers.

“You’ll have to dynamite me out of New England,” is what I often say to friends who extoll the virtues of moving to warmer, calmer climates. And nowhere else does my heart feel as uniquely at home as it does than in the chilly waters of the ocean or one of New England’s plentiful lakes. I’d rather be in or on the water than just about any other place and I devote as much of our too-short summers as possible to making that happen.

In the water, I am weightless (quite a feat for someone of my uh… stature), I am surrounded and comforted by the cool blue or green hues. I can flip on my back underwater and watch the sun stream through the world above me. I can move with speed and strength to my chosen destination, or let go, float, and choose to let the current carry me wherever it wants to.

We Spend as Much of the Summer as We Can at the Beach

Thanks in large part to my obsession with water, we spend as much of every summer as possible on the beaches of our favorite lakes and seaside spots. An afternoon with a few hours of free time will find us at our pool.

After the isolation of a New England winter, revisiting these places is like coming home. But it can also feel as though every summer the children, families, and couples we see around us are the same ones. That the children never age – remaining frozen in time for that one day we watched them build a sandcastle, or take tentative steps toward the water, or wipe out on skim and boogie boards.

One of my favorite photos is of me and my then five-year old walking on the beach. In the background is a mom holding a toddler and lately I’ve realized that toddler himself must be heading to college soon. One hot summer day, when my daughter was in high school and too busy to join us, we ended up on a crowded beach next to a family with three little ones who had set up so close to us we were practically sharing the same blanket.

The toddler in the background of this old photo must be heading to college soon.

As I watched the harried mom trying to keep things organized while juggling the baby on her hip and overseeing two active girls, I offered to help. Within minutes I had the baby on my lap and a girl hanging on each knee. We spent the rest of the day with our new little friends, sharing snacks, answering questions, and even holding their hands in the waves when mom needed to stay with the napping baby and dad needed help keeping watch over both girls in the water. It was a charming, almost magical day.

I’ve never forgotten this family, and we always remember them when we visit that particular beach. This year, I was hard pressed to remember how much time had passed since that day, and I got a little sad, mourning the growing up of those girls I had only known for a few hours years ago. Or that toddler in my photo.

I feel the same way watching our neighborhood kids who jumped and splashed in our condo pool grow up more and more each summer. Chubby toddlers turning into rambunctious kids, to cool teenagers until they were gone, like my own daughter.

But I was still there.

And I realized that what I was mourning wasn’t that these kids, including my own, had grown up and moved on, it was that I was standing still. I was caught in this strange no-man’s land of parenting. I wasn’t really an empty nester yet, but I wasn’t a hands-on mom any more either.

I have watched kids, including my own, grow up at the beach.

I felt as though I was waiting for something to happen – not to my daughter – but to me. Some sign, some signal about what I was supposed to be next – who I was supposed to be next.

Ironically, I’ve never been one of those moms who wrapped her entire identity into motherhood.  In fact, I was pretty bad at being a mom when my daughter was younger, only really hitting my stride in her teen years. With her now in college, I was relishing our time together as adults, happy to put the grind of parenting a little one far behind me.

I couldn’t relate to the emotional and beautiful essays about how we mourn our children growing up because we mourn that kind of connected, daily parenting and the person we used to be when they were little. I liked leaving that behind, I was ready to leave that behind, especially because there were long stretches of my time as a mom that I didn’t exactly remember with fondness.

But now as I watched my daughter on the cusp of starting her true adult life, so much in front of her, I didn’t know what was next for me. There seemed to be so much time stretching before me – to write, to act, to travel (ok to travel once we were done paying tuition!). So much time it seemed scary to even try to envision where my life would lead. And at the same time there seemed to be not enough time at all to do all that I wanted – to be all that I wanted – especially since I wasn’t sure what that actually was.

And maybe that’s why I swim. Maybe that’s why I look to the water for signs, for clues, why I submerge myself in the enveloping quiet, surf the top of waves or dive beneath them. In that weightless blue, I feel myself moving forward even if I’m not sure toward what.

Sometimes the possibilities seem as limitless as the entire ocean, and I can slice through the water sure of my destination.  And sometimes I fight to get anywhere before I come crashing back to shore coughing and gasping for air, feeling old and stupid for even having tried to conquer the waves. In the water, I say goodbye to that anxious, tired mom I used to be, see the reflection of the happier, confident one she grew into, and welcome the possibilities of the woman she could still someday become.

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Katie Collins is a native Mainer who has called New Hampshire home for the past 29 years. A nonprofit development professional by trade, Katie also has over 25 years of experience in community and professional theater and in 2013 was awarded NH Theater Award for Lead Actress in a Drama or Comedy. She resides in quiet domesticity with her adorable wife, with occasional visits from her talented daughter, a college junior . Katie is a lover of musical theater, the original Star Trek, cheeseburgers, old Carol Burnett show reruns, and weekly lap swimming at the local YMCA. She tries very hard not to take herself too seriously.

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