A pair of white socks has been crumpled under my computer desk for the past 10 days.
A month ago, those socks would have annoyed me.
I would have called out to our oldest son to come and pick them up. He spent hours sitting at my computer, editing video, recording music or sorting through his photos. I often had to ask him if he could jump out of my chair for a while so I could use my computer.
Reminders of My Son are Everywhere
He would move out of the way but forget an SD card or a bag of chips or an empty glass. Or a pair of socks.
I keep looking at the socks and thinking I should pick them up. I didn’t notice them in our rush to get him packed up for college move-in day.
The reality is I’m not planning to put those socks in the laundry anytime soon. I can’t move them any more than I can go in his room. I’m not going to make the bed or neatly fold the clothes that were left behind when he sorted through them to decide which ones to take. I shut the door, not to block out his teen boy mess. But so I won’t choke up when I walk past.
I might be able to do it the week of fall break. By then, it will have been seven weeks since we dropped him off at college.
I’ve actually handled his absence far better than I imagined I would. Humans are highly adaptable creatures. It’s amazing we don’t spend each day thinking about how things would be if this life change had not have happened. We adjust and start accepting our new normal.
Still, leaving him at college for the first time was the single most difficult thing I have done so far as a parent. It’s not natural to be separated from your child. It doesn’t feel right to drive away and leave him in a sterile dorm room with a complete stranger for a roommate.
I have a constant nagging that something isn’t quite right. Something is missing. Our family isn’t complete.
For the past 18 years, I’ve done a mental checklist hundreds of times to make sure I wasn’t forgetting any of my four children. When they were little, I would check their car seats repeatedly to confirm they were all there. I remember moments one would fall asleep and shrink down in a position in which I couldn’t see his or her head in my rearview mirror. My heart would stop for a second until I could turn my head to verify the seat was still occupied.
When the oldest three became teenagers, I started crashing through my REM sleep at 1 a.m. in a panic. Did I fall asleep before they all came home? I would run through all the sounds I had heard earlier in the evening to review each one’s arrival. I would click “Find my Friends” on my phone to confirm everyone’s current location.
Lately, I avoid pulling up the app, which seems to taunt me when I least expect it. I will be happily cooking or working on a project when I check my phone to find out if my husband is on his way from work. The circular icons for the other kids show they are nearby. Then, it zooms out to point out the thing I had forced to the back of my mind — one won’t be home for dinner. I choke back tears as his icon blinks with his location 227 miles away.
So far, I have resisted the urge to zoom in to try to get a closer view of exactly where he might be on campus. I stop myself from texting him every hour throughout the day to ask how his classes went or who he sat with in the dining hall or what he’s doing.
That’s part of the deal. I have to let him do his thing without constantly needing to know every detail. I have to let him grow and have fun and walk through hard experiences without me by his side. As our firstborn, I’ve always been over-protective of him. To let him grow, I know I have to let him do things his own way.
And he’s doing an amazing job. Every time I talk to him, he is full of life and energy. I couldn’t be more proud of the way he has engaged in college life, taken risks and stepped out of his comfort zone. I love that he is determined to make the most of his first year of college and take advantage of his time away from home.
It’s the first time I don’t get to share his experience. I don’t get to attend his events. Share photos on Instagram. Or tell my friends about all of his accomplishments. He gets to do college without me.
Our family dynamic is slowly shifting to fill the void he left. I’ve noticed that our other son talks more at dinner without his older brother carrying the weight of answering my questions. His sisters seem to appreciate each other a little more with the daily reminder they won’t always be living under one roof together.
I have moments when I expect him to walk around the corner and tell me about his day. I long to step into my office and see him sitting at my computer.
Not that long ago, it seemed overwhelming to buy enough groceries for a family of six. For years, our laundry room has been constant chaos with the ever-merging piles of clean and dirty clothes.
Now, with just one person absent, the food in the refrigerator seems like it’s lasting too long. The laundry room isn’t quite crowded enough. My computer chair is too empty.
And I don’t mind having a pair of dirty socks under my desk.
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Emily Neal is a writer, photographer and crafter who blogs about her life adventures at emilyneal.online. She lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and four children, who are 18, 16, 14 and 9. She’s adjusting to a new family dynamic after sending her oldest son to college. She loves telling stories through words and video, taking photos of the full moon, trying new craft projects, and creating DIY projects for her home. You can find her at emilyneal.online or on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.