I Don’t Know How to Process My Daughter Leaving for College

Every year, starting around her 13th birthday, I did the math. Five years until she leaves for college, four years, then three; you get the point. I sobbed on her 16th birthday. I pictured the Days of Our Lives hourglass, taunting me with its ever-present threat — “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

There is no guidebook to help us prepare for our teens leaving home. (Twenty20 @natakorenikha16)

Every year passed at a seemingly record pace, and now, suddenly, nearly all the sand has trickled through, and I’m left with just a few grains. Less than a week until my firstborn leaves for college. And I don’t know how to process this. The feelings are just too overwhelming, too complex. I’m stuck in my sadness. Time is not just a thief; it’s also a jerk.

I’m in the thick of her leaving, and it hurts like hell

Somewhere along the way, I tricked myself into believing I might make it through unscathed because I mentally braced myself for this for years. But the heart has a funny way of fooling us for self-preservation.

I’m in the thick of it now, and it hurts like hell. As in, it causes physical pain when I breathe in. Nothing could have prepared me for this deep, brutal sadness or mixed feelings about feeling this way. That’s right, I’m having feelings about my feelings.

I’m used to emotions. I’ve been a deep feeler all my life. I cry if the wind hits me the wrong way. I still can’t hear Forever Your Girl by Paula Abdul without feeling sad. It was the song my best friend, and I used to listen to before I had to move hundreds of miles away at age 9. And don’t even get me started on my first real heartbreak. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

Nothing about my kids leaving feels “right”

Everyone says this is the natural progression of things, and while that may be true, nothing about this feels natural in any way, shape, or form. It all feels wrong. To raise, mold, and nurture for 18 years and then send them on their way and out the door? I can’t think of anything more unnatural. I don’t want to let her go and spread her wings — she’s not a bird, for crying out loud.

I’m a glass half-full kinda gal. Seeing the positive, the silver linings — it all comes naturally to me. I know this is a beautiful beginning for my daughter, but for today, I’m stuck at the ending part. It feels like we suddenly ran out of time. And while there was plenty of advanced warning, I’m here to tell you that 18 years isn’t enough. It will never be enough.

The highlight reel of these past 18 years won’t stop playing in my mind on repeat. At every age and stage, billions of images are captured in my heart and on my iPhone. All the big moments, but even more so the tiny, insignificant moments in between that add up to a lifetime of memories. I’m convinced that the Facebook memories that pop up are out to sink me.

I would pay to have more time with my teen

I told my husband I’d pay $10K if it bought me another year. More time. That’s all I want. For re-dos and do-overs. More hugs, and I love yous. More togetherness. To convince her she doesn’t want to spend all her time with her friends but would rather spend every waking second with her mama. I never said these were realistic wishes, but the heart wants what it wants.

If I’m being honest, my day-to-day life won’t drastically change after she leaves. My daughter has always been so independent and so social. Once she got her license, a car, and a job, she never looked back, she was always on the go. Her life was consumed by her packed social schedule, work, and school.

We were often like ships passing in the night, her coming home from work as I got into bed. But there was comfort every time Life360 told me she arrived safely home. Her clunky footsteps on the 3rd floor. The sound of her alarm that she slept through, even though I could hear it a floor away. Ok, maybe I won’t miss that part.

I know my daughter will be back for summers and breaks

I know she’ll return for breaks and summers, but I cannot wrap my head around the fact that this is the end of this particular chapter of our story. I’ve loved writing it, and I’m not ready to turn the page to start a new one just yet. It’s equal parts missing her presence and missing what was. It guts me.

My girl, she’s ready to go out there and conquer the world. Or, at least, to conquer college parties. Not an ounce of sadness on her end. Only excitement at what’s to come.  Of course, I’d prefer it that way, and I’m grateful. I’m so proud. I’m not even particularly worried about this next stage for her. I know she’ll crush it. But how can two people with the same DNA end up on opposite ends of the sadness spectrum?

How can I barely breathe while she’s got one foot out the door, like “peace out, mom!” Does that mean we did a good job raising an independent woman? I hope so.

I know this should be a happy time

People mean well, I know that. I’ve heard the following on repeat — “She’ll be close by; this is an exciting chapter; at least you have two more at home.” Rationally, I know all of these things to be true. I know that this is a happy time full of possibilities. It’s a time to celebrate. And I hope that soon, in the battle of heart vs. rational brain, the brain will be the victor. But for the time being, heartbreak has a hold on me.

My heart cannot catch up to my brain, no matter how hard I try to force it to. And oh, how I’ve tried. I imagine it’s like what quicksand feels like, wanting desperately to claw your way out but not being able to. 

I have plenty of supportive people in my life. And I know thousands of other parents are simultaneously going through this same thing. So why do I feel so very alone? I’ve seen a spectrum of reactions from other parents — none right or wrong or better or worse —everything from total excitement to those in the middle with mixed emotions to those struggling. But I’m feeling my extra-ness more than ever right now. I’m crumbling more than most; I’ll admit that I’m jealous of those who are handling this a lot better than me.

I know I’m not the only one who feels a loss

A well-meaning loved one said, “Maybe you need to speak to someone professionally.” The comment only made me feel more alone. But I know there are more of us out there, and sharing our experiences is a bit like lending a band-aid, providing some temporary relief and, hopefully, eventual healing.

So, for the other deep feelers temporarily drowning in their sorrow, I wrote this for you. This is me extending my hand to help pull you from the quicksand. I see you. You’re not alone.

There is no guidebook for this

There’s no guidebook for this, no map on how to navigate. We can’t turn off our emotions (we’ve tried!), and we can’t pretend this isn’t happening — we can only feel our way through it, having faith that we’ll come out on the other side still standing.

Feeling deeply is our superpower, and there’s no shame in loving so big that it hurts sometimes. There’s so much beauty, joy, and excitement just around the corner — so much still to celebrate — I know it, even if I can’t quite feel it yet. We’ll get there, even if it takes us a little longer this time.

More Great Reading:

My Son Is Leaving For College: Please Don’t Say “It’ll Be Fine”

About Lauren Coffey

Lauren Coffey is a married mother of 3 residing in Knoxville, TN with her family and 2 dogs. She is an alumni affairs professional at an Ivy League institution by day. She believes deeply in the power of empathy. You can currently find her riding  a rollercoaster of emotions as she prepares to send her firstborn off to college.

Read more posts by Lauren

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