The fact that my oldest daughter is going to college next month comes as no great surprise to me—I’ve been anticipating and preparing for it for a really, really long time. Pretty much since the day she was born.
Together with my husband, of course, I helped her research schools, went on all the campus tours, bought all the overpriced hoodies from all the schools we might be interested in, filled out all the applications, proofread her essay, waited by the mailbox, ran screaming around the house when the first acceptance letter came, cried when she got in to her dream school, mailed the deposit, threw up, went to Accepted Student’s Day, met her roommate, saw her fall semester course schedule, and did a drive-by of her dorm.
What I haven’t been able to anticipate, though, is the exact time when the uncontrollable swell of emotion that’s been coursing around inside me, just under the surface, will show itself. And that’s the thing I’m most afraid of, to be honest.
The rational, mature, grounded part of my brain has really been pretty good with everything up to now. I mean, in most cases, kids grow up, they graduate from high school, they go on to college, they find jobs and build careers, and then they start families of their own. Life comes full circle, exactly like it did in The Lion King. So theoretically, I’m totally fine with the whole cycle of life. Theoretically.
My unexpected downfall came very suddenly, a few days ago, and it started with an empty red shopping cart.
We were at Target, of course, with her What Incoming Freshman Need to Bring list. It was long, but not overwhelming and she was so excited to re-brand herself as a college freshman, that her energy was contagious. And because of how enthusiastic she is to go off to school, the real magnitude of what we were doing hadn’t really clicked for me.
I was actually fine at first, almost whimsically grabbing cases of bottled water and laundry pods and extra-long sheet sets. She asked for my opinion on sizes and colors and brands and could already visualize the way her room was going to look—just like I did when I took the same shopping trip with my mom decades ago.
Then, without even realizing where we had wandered in the store, I looked up to find myself staring directly down the center aisle of the Toy Department. And that’s when the wheels started coming off the bus for me.
I just stood there, my eyes drifting from the Polly Pocket shopping mall to the Legos to the Elmo dolls, and then I lost it. My throat tightened up, my eyes started squirting out tears, and all I could see was my four-year-old daughter wearing a Disney princess dress, lobbying for me to buy her a new stuffed dog.
Lucky for me, the moment was brief—a lot like the daily storm cells that blow into, and out of, the Florida coast. So quick that I’m not sure she even noticed. And I’m glad for that. Because even though she knows her mother well enough to anticipate a full and total breakdown when I turn and walk away from her on drop-off day, I didn’t want all of our time getting ready to be eclipsed by snotty wads of Kleenex. There’ll be plenty of that to come, I’m sure.
That was my first authentic oh-my-God-my-daughter-is-going-to-college episode. And as momentarily gut-wrenching as it was, I survived. We all survive.
This experience of raising our kids, laboring over them, loving them, guiding and protecting them, and then letting them loose in the world is a super-weird sensation. We all know it’s time; we all know they’re ready; but we just don’t want to let go when the time finally comes. And it hits us all at different times and in very different ways.
Deepak Chopra says all great changes are preceded by chaos. So I’m gonna go with that for now. As for next week, though, when we’re loading up the car, all bets are off. Until next month…