When my oldest daughter, Maggie, called from the hospital near her college two weeks into her freshman year, I panicked. I dread these calls because my husband and daughters all have life-threatening food allergies. But when she said, “I’m fine. I have some sort of pneumonia,” I let out my breath.
Then, I thought about what I should do. Minutes later, I threw a bag of clothes into my car and drove 3½ hours to take care of her. I was ecstatic. Even during the challenging times of parenthood, I loved and thrived on caring for my daughters. That was who I was — a mother.
I knew I’d struggle when my kids left home
But I don’t do change or goodbye well, and I have a history of depression, so I knew I’d struggle when my children left home. What I didn’t know was that I’d crash and burn. Weeks earlier, I had cried the original 3 ½ hour drive home after waving goodbye to Maggie on the steps to her new dorm. But now I got to go back to my favorite role.
When I returned to care for her, instead of running around campus to get to know other new students, Maggie spent three days with me in the college inn. We even shared a king bed. I was in heaven. “I hate college,” she cried while visiting her dorm room. “I want to go back to high school.”
For a brief moment, I thought that plan was terrific. But instead, I told Maggie, “It’s the seniors’ turn now. It’s your turn to do this.” And it was my turn to say goodbye, become more of a support person, and learn to follow her lead.
When my younger daughter, Ellie, left for college much closer to home, she told her dad and me that we were not to contact her for six weeks. She was going to pretend she had left for college in Ohio, where we couldn’t be with her. My husband and I counted down the days until we were allowed to have coffee with her or even talk to her on the phone.
I’ve seen college freshmen adjusting to college for years, but this time, it was personal
I have taught college students for over thirty years and witnessed their search for a home, for friends, and for who they are as they mature. But now, this hunt for identity was personal. As my daughters searched for their identity, I had to figure out who I was without them at home.
I still let my daughters guide me, which at times was difficult. I learned to avoid putting pressure on them to call me or answer my calls. Their calls home were infrequent and unpredictable, but I always dropped what I was doing — correcting papers, doing laundry, writing, cooking — when the phone rang.
I didn’t know if I could have a fulfilling life if my role as a mother didn’t consume me. It had defined me. I had put all my desires and needs on a shelf in my closet behind the dresses on hangers.
Watching my house empty made me sad and depressed
Watching my house empty and my role get smaller in size and significance was a killer. I cried a lot. I hid in my home office, avoided my friends, and relied on my husband, maybe too much.
I felt very alone when I was depressed. I wish I had asked for help from more people who had been through this process. Initially, I filled my time with medical appointments, work, and dog training; I didn’t have time to think. That was a mistake.
Processing a loss is a natural part of the healing process. But for some reason, our society encourages us “to get over it” and “move on.” Easier said than done. Maybe we need to allow feelings of loss in our lives to do the moving on — feel those feelings, don’t bury them with busyness.
Eventually, I reimagined a new life for myself
Eventually, I pushed the hangers aside in my closet, got on meds, exercised, and began to find joy and identity in other parts of my life as a writer, professor, dog lover, wife, friend, quilter, and baker. I was still a mother, but I didn’t need to be with my daughters 24/7 to find meaning and purpose in my days.
My daughters are now 31 and 28. They’ve been gone a long time. If I’m honest, I still miss them and the waffles around the kitchen counter, but I’m so proud of what they’re doing with their lives and how independent they are, and I’m excited to see what comes next for them.
I love my life right now. My professional life is on an upswing. My memoir just came out.
I run a private writing workshop, I edit a magazine, and I teach undergrads at Emerson. At home, I read, quilt in what was my daughter’s room, walk my dogs daily with my husband, eat baked goods instead of waffles for breakfast, and watch TV almost every night together.
That doesn’t sound super sexy or exciting, but it’s our way of saying I love you. I’ll always be a mother, there for my daughters — to laugh with and take care of when they ask. I might even drive or fly to help them, but I’m living my life for me. I’m not going to lie, change can be challenging, and adjusting takes work, but now I look ahead at what’s coming, not what has been.
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Morgan Baker is the author of Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Goodbyes, and an award-winning professor at Emerson College. Her credits include: The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Next Tribe, The Bark, and Hippocampus. She is managing editor of The Bucket. She lives with her husband and two dogs in MA.