It was a simple Facebook post, the likes of which I’ve probably seen a dozen times. It had a picture of a dorm room, with a friend’s caption, “My daughter is all moved in!” I had talked to her over lunches about the mixed emotions in the lead-up to her oldest’s departure for college, so I had an inkling of the many things she might be feeling: pride, loss, excitement.
I closed my eyes. My mind went inevitably to three years from now. In what now looks like an epic case of bad planning, my kids are one year apart in school. I will take one to college one August, the other the next (if all goes well, I should say!). I imagined dropping them off, the loss of each stinging for its own reason, just as each touches me in a unique way. My eyes filled up with tears, the dread rushing up to the surface. It’s too close to discount, too far to worry about. But it hangs like a vapor, suffusing everything. This time is limited.
The other day, when I posted pictures of our most recent vacation, a friend replied, “It looks like you’re getting the most out of this time as a family.” She can’t know how right she is. I’m conscious of it all the time. I feel myself making a checklist: “Where haven’t I taken them? What haven’t I taught them? What do they still need to experience before they can be on their own?” I create lessons in all: managing a checking account, talks about having fun at parties but staying safe, demonstrations of how to handle a sharp curve while driving. Will I have time to teach them everything? It used to feel like time was endless. Now I see the clock running down.
I remind myself we haven’t been to Hawaii, the way my son became obsessed with doing after watching Lilo and Stitch. (Five years old at the time, I’m pretty sure he put it on because he thought he’d run into Stitch there). In fact, at the time, he wrote a list of all the places he wanted to go and posted it on the kitchen wall: Hawaii, Paris and Under the Sea. I have failed to take him to any of those places. Sure, they’ve had at least one vacation a year every year of their lives, but have they been enough? I haven’t even taken them to the rodeo here in New Jersey, a thing that’s been on my list of things to do with them for about five years, along with the ziplining we also haven’t done. I count the time left and wonder if I’ll do it all. I know they’ve had great childhoods. But, like cramming for a final exam, I wonder if I’m covering all the topics I’m supposed to.
They come back, everyone tells me. It’s not like they evaporate. They come back with laundry, a few extra pounds on, a request for a favorite meal. (Alas, with my minor cooking skills, they’ll probably ask for familiar take-out instead). But I read a beautiful analogy about how it’s never quite the same again: before college, you’re like the sun and they’re like planets. Your rhythms are aligned – drive me here, can such-and-such come over, where are my socks, what’s for dinner, can you buy those cookies I like. When they come back, they’re adults, more like shooting stars passing through. So the end of that 18-year period really is the end of something, the end of being the primary caregiver, the one they rely on for basic living. Sure, there’s something after, but it’s not the same. It’s the next thing.
Things change, of course. It does no good to worry about them. But it’s hard to imagine what life looks like after they do. I can honestly say I spend every day with my favorite people now. And then? What happens after I post the pictures of the dorms and get in the car? It all looks so blank now. A little exciting, a little scary. Not bad, but blank, waiting to be written.
Forgive me if you’ve read a post like this from me before. I write about what I think about. And I think about this a lot. Not sick of the topic quite yet? Here’s a link to that post I mentioned, the one that compares the relationship between kids and parents to planets and comets. Really sweet: click here.