A year ago, a friend of mine whose child had just graduated from high school suggested I write an article about this big milestone. I thought about it and decided to wait. It would have been like writing a guidebook about Paris based on internet research, without actually going there and seeing the light, smelling the bread. A year later, my son has just graduated from high school. Let’s just say I’ve seen the light. I assume that’s why there are tears in my eyes all the time.
Okay, not all the time. Because this moment is actually a dream come true. Since the first day I was nauseated from pre-natal vitamins, I’ve dreamed of seeing him grow up, finish high school and then move out into the world to finish becoming who he is. I’ve used up every birthday candle, every dandelion, and every stray eyelash on this particular wish. He turned out to be a person beyond my imagination with his own talents and quirks and wonderful friends. He set a goal, he never slept, and here we are, victorious at the finish line. Ugh, it’s the worst.
I’ve seldom had such mixed feelings, and such is the mind of a parent in the middle of the leaving period. This leaving period is characterized by equal parts joy and grief. A month of celebrations will culminate in the dreaded trip to Bed Bath and Beyond. That trip carries with it so much meaning that it’s almost like a sacrament. You have prepared yourself for this moment, my child, let us wander the aisles and purchase extra long sheets for your journey.
The leaving period is a little like the very, very end of pregnancy. We’d wished for that pregnancy, tried for it, celebrated it. We measured our progress and couldn’t wait for the moment that we get to see it to fruition. But in the last few minutes before delivery, we might have a feeling that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. It occurs to us that this is going to be really painful. And it’s too late, there’s no place for that baby to go but out.
The thing is, he’s too big to stay here. He is almost 18 years old and about 6 inches taller than anyone else in the house. I might go so far as to say that he’s outgrown us. He is still our child, but he is no longer a child in our house. He makes his own plans, he’s on his own schedule. He’s a separate ball of energy who barrels through the door, makes us all laugh and takes his brothers out for ice cream. He’s no longer part of the routine; he feels like a treat.
And he’s been leaving for a long time. High school begins a slow retreat, like the water draining from a tub. You barely notice as it’s happening, and then suddenly you shiver and feel a little raw. Once they’re in high school, they wake up, race out the door and come home to eat. By the time you’re clearing the table someone says: wait, where’d he go? For a while now, my son has sounded like the car peeling out of the driveway.
So it actually feels right that he’s going. Awful and terrible and the worst thing I’ve ever done without an epidural, but right. My takeaway from sitting in the middle of this leaving period is that it’s okay to feel two ways. It’s the way you feel when you sell the home you loved so that you could go off on a new adventure. In any transition, there’s a period of holding onto the hand of the thing you are supposed to be letting go.
My husband has been saying for years that he’s going to pull a Rodney Dangerfield and go Back to School when our son leaves. We all laugh because we like to pretend he’s kidding. The truth is we can’t tag along. We won’t be those parents who call his professors. We won’t be those parents who show up some weekend, unannounced. I know this because we’ve been asked nicely. Thank God for whoever invented Fall Break.
Annabel Monaghan’s first book for adults, Does This Volvo Make My Butt Look Big?: Thoughts for moms and other tired people is a collection of humorous essays for moms based on her column that appears in TheWeek.com, The Huffington Post and The Rye Record. She is the author of two novels for young adults, A Girl Named Digit and Double Digit (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010 and 2012), and she is the co-author of Click! The Girls Guide to Knowing What You Want and Making it Happen (Simon and Schuster 2007).
Annabel has a BA in English from Duke University and an MBA from The University of Pennsylvania. She teaches novel writing at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Rye, New York with her husband and three sons.