There – it just happened again. As I pull out of my neighborhood on my way to work, I catch a glimpse of a school bus ahead, brake lights flashing as it inches to a stop to welcome the kids congregating on the corner. Idling in my car several lengths back, I blink back tears, embarrassed I’m suffering another mini-meltdown at what should be a very familiar – and even inconvenient scenario.
It’s been more than 12 years since my daughter first stepped on the kindergarten bus and she’s now in her first year at college. Yet, somehow the sight of that yellow bus forces me to relive that first day over again, unleashing a flood of emotions.
On that milestone day, I was the typical combination of pride, joy and bundle of nerves, desperate for our only child-daughter to make friends at her new school. The iconic Subaru commercial “Cutting the Cord” nailed every parent’s secret fantasy about a kindergartner’s first day. In the ad, a nervous father watches his curly-haired daughter board a school bus and then stealthily tracks the bus in his Subaru until he glimpses his daughter laughing in the bus window. At this point the music swells as the father is finally reassured that his daughter will be FINE in kindergarten (unclear on the father, however).
As my daughter climbed onto her own kindergarten bus that muggy September day (with one tentative look back to where her father was snapping rapid-fire pictures) I knew she would be fine as well. My tears were not because I was unsure of her, her teacher, her soon-to-be-BFFs or even the confidence I knew she would soon exhibit. My tears were more because I realized that this was the first of many departures. Departures where my daughter would be mature enough to go off into the world without me. Departures that foreshadowed camp vacations, weeks away at sports clinics, and finally multi-week adventures in Nicaragua while in high school.
While they say the mark of a good parent is being able to raise happy, self-sufficient kids, cutting the tie still hurts. Our last glimpse of our daughter as the bus accelerated around the corner was a page from the Subaru commercial. Our daughter was a bit more serious but she was chatting with the other sole occupant of the bus, a fellow kindergarten classmate with whom she would become “bus buddies.” She later told us that as “bus buddies,” she and her new-found friend made a pact that they would look after each other as well as the other kids in the class to ensure that they always got on the right bus.
And, no, on this particular day, my daughter didn’t look back at her grieving parents. And, no, despite wanting to jump in my car and take off after the bus as it meandered on its way to the elementary school, we didn’t follow her. Instead, I spent the morning wondering what she was doing at any given time and eagerly awaiting the return of the bus just a few hours later to learn about her first day.
Seeing my daughter years later in her crowded dorm room (a triple!) brought me back to that day. Move-in day at the dorm was equally hot and muggy, made all the steamier by the effort in unpacking my daughter’s things and contorting ourselves trying to make her bunk bed. But, now my tufty-haired baby wasn’t riding a few miles down the road only to come back again in a few hours. With her chosen college in another state, she was 1000 miles away from us. And, despite technology and the fact I would probably be texting her within 24 hours of dropping her off, I wouldn’t see her in person for months.
Once again my tears weren’t for any real concerns about my daughter’s ability to handle the challenges of two roommates, the schoolwork, the making new friends, the being away from home. In fact, I was envious of all the new adventures and freedoms I knew were awaiting my daughter. And, watching my daughter’s self-confidence and self-sufficiency grow over the last couple of years in high school were truly rewarding.
Rather, I was crying because of my change in role. While I will be a parent my whole life, my role suddenly changed from Mother to hopefully, some sort of hybrid of a friend. I realized I no longer can make and enforce rules now that she’s in college. And while I can still give solicited and unsolicited advice, my daughter may certainly choose to ignore it.
This renegotiation of our relationship will hopefully lead to more openness as well as a new period of closeness in the near future as my daughter navigates adulthood. In effect, my child has changed, our rules of engagement have changed, and so must I.