A College Drop-Off Odyssey: 1,100 Miles With My Ex

If you’d told me when I was getting divorced that someday I’d be sitting in a car with my ex-husband, just the two of us, mostly listening to a commercial radio station playing classic rock for eight hours straight, I would have said you were insane. And yet here I was, driving home in a car emptied of everything it had held in the last few days — the packages and boxes, the stuffed animals, the clothes and books and bedding — and our girl. She’d chosen a school two states away from home, and we teamed up to take her there.

The text from my mom’s group chat came halfway through the return drive: “Ex still alive and well in the car?” I snorted, then read it out loud to my former husband. He barked out a hearty laugh.

We divorced but remain aligned as parents of our daughter, our one and only. (Shutterstock: Krakenimages.com)

Though divorced, we were on the same page about our daughter

Once more, we marveled at our good fortune of not hating each other. We’d both do plenty of things differently, given the chance. And we had more than a normal share of tough times, including secondary infertility, unsuccessful IVF, and navigating two family members (on my side) with severe and complicated medical diagnoses.

But when things evened out, we could see the positive: when it comes to our daughter — our one and only, we’re usually in agreement. We’ve navigated a mediated divorce, visitation schedules, summer camps, and vacations.

Then, we teamed up to help her through the college search, including taking turns driving her to campus visits. He made sure she did practice ACTs. I helped find tutors. 

Old marriage patterns resurfaced during our time together

All that goodwill and cooperation didn’t mean taking her to campus together would be easy breezy. Her school was not close, and we didn’t want to be rushed. The college also had several events planned, so we didn’t have to drop her and dash home, and we didn’t want to.

It was funny how old patterns resurfaced. I wanted to listen to news and podcasts; he wanted only music. Freed from having to do it all solo, I often fell asleep in the front seat when it wasn’t my turn to drive — just like I used to when we were married. 

I found an Airbnb near the college town where we’d have room to spread out. He slept in one room, and my daughter and I shared the other. Still, I was worried about that drive back together.

Did I want to have a breakdown in front of my ex?

Like many parents, I didn’t know how I would feel and expected I would cry. Did I really want to have a breakdown in front of my ex-husband? I considered meeting up with a cousin in the area. I fantasized about asking my ex to drop me off at the airport, jetting off somewhere serene, or even heading to a girlfriend where I could be sad and supported and regroup.

Reality meant I needed to get back to my job and anyway, being busy would probably be best. More than anything, though, it just didn’t seem kind or fair to saddle him with a long, solitary trip home just because I thought I might want to sit with my emotions and do it alone.

During the parent orientation and indeed over the three and half days, we were all together, I couldn’t help but look at the couples around us. The moms who seemed similar to me, their hair greying, their faces — wistful, proud, and anxious all at the same time. I realized during the orientation at one point that I was doing fine; I just wasn’t breathing very much.

I saw other couples support each other through drop-off

I watched a mom in front of me lean her head on her partner’s shoulder and sigh. I saw another who, sitting on the steps of the student union, said, “I’m sad,” and then fell into the hug her husband gave her. I felt a sting when the college administrator exhorted the families to be kind to each other during this transition.

“Be supportive of your spouse,” he said, and heads nodded. My ex and I sat side by side, with no arms around each other.

But we did it, everyone navigating the final goodbye with hugs and kisses and an all-around dampness in our eyes. The way back was long and filled with stops for coffee and sandwiches.

We had our own drama; now the drama is about our daughter

We were quieter than I expected, maybe each of us a little numb at the new reality of our daughter being away at school alone. I looked out the window and chuckled at the surreal scene when the song Afternoon Delight came on the radio.

My ex was busy changing lanes. There had been so much drama, love, and heartbreak in our story. But now the drama — the good kind — filled with adventure is for our daughter. When we finally made it home, we turned to each other and hugged goodbye.

More Great Reading:

I’m a Divorced Dad, and Here’s Why College Drop-Off Feels Normal

About Theta Pavis

Theta Pavis is poet and educator who has worked in higher education for more than a decade. A former reporter and magazine editor, she served as the Director of Student Media at New Jersey City University. At NJCU is helped first-generation college students create news articles, podcasts and a literary magazine. In 2021, the Society of Professional Journalists (NJ chapter) named her “Journalism Educator of the Year.” In 2022, a collection of her poems was shortlisted by Yellow Arrow Publishing. Her writing has appeared in The Journal of New Jersey Poets, The Red Wheelbarrow, Mom Egg Review, Why to These Rocks: 50 Years of Poetry from the Community of Writers (HeyDay Books) and many others. Her poems have been performed onstage by Poetry Well in New York. She works in communications at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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