Today I spent the day at the mall with my almost 17-year-old-daughter.
The one who is nearing the end of her junior year.
The one who uses the phrase “senior year” way too much lately.
The one with whom we spend a ridiculous amount of time discussing college plans.
The one who actually thinks I’m letting her go to college.
Our day was lovely, mostly due to the fact that my daughter is lovely. She’s a joy to be around. She’s chatty and hilarious and the very best friend and shopping partner a mama could wish for. She’s been this way since birth, by the way: pure sunshine radiating beams of sarcasm and wit, with just enough drama and angst to even it all out so you don’t get burned. She’s my pal. My baby girl who has brought life and laughter to the past 6,200 days, give or take a few.
And in one year and the blink of an eye she will be leaving the nest, and for some strange reason, her father and I are facilitating it.
Junior year is hell, to put it mildly. If you’ve experienced it – which I have, five years ago with my older daughter, thank you very much – I know you know what I’m talking about. The words “junior year” are usually all it takes to send veteran parents into instant PTSD.
It’s a stressful year for everyone involved: ACTs, impossible amounts of homework, grades to keep up, colleges to consider, extracurricular activities to balance, and the pressures to “keep up” — as in, keep up with all the other juniors who are touring colleges and getting 30+ on their ACTs, not to mention the other parents who seem to think we care to hear about it. By this time in the year, it’s a relief to have it be almost over, until I stop to remember what junior year being over actually means.
For the past six months, my husband and I have been advocating all of the typical junior year, college-prep things, yet doing so with somewhat more of a nonchalant attitude than we did five years ago. Like I said, it’s not our first trip to this shit show, and we know better than to pile on unnecessary pressure. However, it’s tough not to get caught up in the snowball that starts rolling down the hill with avalanche speeds in about February, isn’t it?
We’ve found phrases like “safety schools,” “essay prep,” and worse, “when you’re in college” flying out of our mouths more and more often as the months fly by. We not only talk calmly about her leaving home and moving across the country, we are actually facilitating all the steps for her to make that happen. Lucidly. Rationally. And I’ll admit, I often find myself getting so caught up in the excitement for her that I forget to stop to consider what it all means: my baby leaving home … and me becoming besties (again) with the clerk at Total Wine. Hey, Carl.
It’s usually not until around 11:47 p.m. — nightly — that it hits me. You know, that super rational time each night when our minds like to mess with us, turning every detail of life into a personal Terms of Endearment. The panic sets in. I feel my heart racing every bit as fast as that damn clock that’s ticking off the days I have left with my baby girl at home. My brain somehow dredges up moments — forgotten in the daylight hours — of her as a darling toddler, a precocious grade-schooler, an angsty pre-teen; the years I rested comfortably in the ignorance of this time in life actually happening.
And every moment remembered is magnified exponentially at this hour. She is more darling and precocious than ever, and even the angsty times seem adorable. When the thoughts then venture into the dangerous territory of how it will feel when she is actually in college, and the tears invariably begin to prick the back of my eyelids, I have to shut it down, and I vow to myself to resist encouraging any and all college planning from here on out. Super rational, just like I said.
But back to our trip to the mall. At the end of our fun day, where we found things that I was firmly in denial associating with her like prom dresses and senior picture outfits, I had a moment of panic that led to some forgotten perspective. It struck me — like a freight train — that leisurely days like this with my baby girl are numbered. That the discussions and tentative plans and her actually leaving home will happen.
And then I somehow had a moment of clarity, which sure, may have been courtesy of the bottle of chardonnay I’d opened to ease my mind, but still. I remembered that regardless of the looming calendar and the million and one things to do in the next six months that are stressing us out, there’s time. I know that it will fly by faster than all the previous 11 years have, but at the end of the day, there’s still time.
Because there’s something else I learned the first go-round: denial and heartache and the 11:47 p.m. tearjerker that replays nightly won’t prolong the moments I need to instead be savoring: the mundane trips to the mall; watching our favorite TV shows together; listening to her daily 20-minute detailed account of her day; and yes, even planning for college, taking the necessary steps to help get her there, and being excited about the future.
I’m sure Carl is excited, too.