And, he’s off. My firstborn child. Not quite off the face of my planet, but he’s not in my face either, dammit. My friends with younger children, who are not babies, but not quite at the high school home stretch yet, have asked me what it feels like when your firstborn moves away to college.
Turns out, it felt like a couple of things. After all the months and then weeks and then days and then hours and then minutes of anticipation of saying goodbye to my son on the day he set foot in his new life, under another roof, as the sole director of his own fate, the moment came and went almost without effort. And that felt tremendous. I had been preparing myself, at least subtly, since his ninth birthday, when it occurred to me that my time with him was half over. I’m not trying to be melodramatic; these things occur to women. If that offends someone, I really don’t give a crap; I just moved my firstborn child to another planet. That’s the other thing it felt like.
So after thinking and deciding and shopping and buying, we packed his stuff into a few plastic storage bins and then his two dads, his sister and I drove for three hours and then moved all of his stuff out of the car and into his new life.
I scurried around his section of the room, unpacking here and there, trying to figure out where he’d like his towels and his mini-fridge, without barraging him with questions; I knew his brain was very busy just absorbing the new environment, and consciously or not, wrapping itself around the fact that in about an hour, his family was going to get back into the car and drive away and he was not.
So while he unpacked his clothes into three small drawers, I stayed quietly busy. His sister and I exchanged glances. Eventually, we all looked at each other and nodded and said, “Time to go.” Awkward and weird. That’s how I’d describe how it felt during the 30 minutes in his dorm room.
Down to the common area we went, to do what I wasn’t sure. Nobody was. We looked out at the view, we sat down, we stood up, we looked at each other, we looked at our phones and then someone suggested that perhaps we were done. Everyone agreed, including the person whose life we had just transported to a neighboring state and unpacked into three drawers, two shelves and a desk.
Hugs happened, but no tears; I was a little surprised by that. But the hug… it wasn’t the kind I got at the front door before he would leave for prom. This time, he pulled me in and he held on. To be clear, he hugged all of us like he meant it. We took pictures. We said goodbye and I watched him amble down the hallway, all 6’6” of him, to the room that would house his beating heart and likely serve as both his solace and his prison, his vista for observing the world and his escape hatch from it. Then we drove home.
Later that evening, sitting on the porch with a glass of wine, I thought back on the day’s events and I felt relief.
But that’s not how I felt the next morning.
My eyes popped open and looked around. I eventually got up and stood in the middle of the room. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do: Do I brush my teeth? Do I go downstairs and get coffee? Do I turn on the TV? It was as if I had awoken in another person’s life, in unfamiliar surroundings. I decided to brush my teeth. I still hadn’t connected the dots. I was moving in slow motion and I didn’t know why. I walked out of the bathroom and looked at my bed. I got back into it. I suddenly wasn’t feeling so well. I instinctively reached for a Kleenex as the pressure built. Then, for two hours, I connected the dots.
Apparently, I had mistakenly figured that because the dropping off process had gone so well, I could confidently put myself in that category of people who handled the first bird evacuation from the nest like a champ. So what it felt like on the day he moved, and what it felt like the day after, were very different feelings.
Coffee in hand, I texted a few friends who had already been through it. Sure enough, the morning-after haymaker is a thing. I described the feeling to one friend, who hasn’t yet been through a child leaving home, as being almost physical, “like mourning a death.” One by one, my experienced friends agreed: It is like a death!
Pure and simple, the feeling comes in waves at a visceral level, and the feeling is sadness.
In fact, it’s a roller-coaster of thrills and tears and longing and reminiscing. Each loop-to-loop brings the same refrain from well-wishers: “You did a good job raising him” and “He’ll be fine.” Well, I know that. That’s not what the feeling is about in the days and weeks following the First Great Migration, when the bedroom door doesn’t swing open five minutes before school starts, and the front door doesn’t shut quietly at midnight on a Friday night, and the “I’m going to be late for dinner” text doesn’t arrive because it doesn’t need to.
Now, after three weeks, it has morphed into another type of sadness: not a death, but a really awful break-up, which if you’ve ever had one, you know hurts worse than a death because the person that you are missing is still alive and living another life, one in which you don’t get to be part of. I’m not talking about a crappy relationship that results in relief for one or both people when the end finally happens. I’m talking about the kind of break-up that leaves you with a hollow dread because that person who you really, really like and want near you, is out there somewhere but you can’t have them. It’s over. They’ll find someone else eventually, and you know it and you have to live with that. And as with most bad break-ups, you have moments when your life feels normal and joyful, and then you have stretches when you just need your good friend, Kleenex. And little by little, the normal moments turn into hours and then days, and the parts requiring quality time with Kleenex become briefer and briefer.
To be clear, I know the sadness is just temporary, and so do all of my mom friends. But as we all know (or should), thoughts and feelings don’t always line up.
So that’s what it feels like now: the end of an amazing relationship, a perfect relationship, one that really did work well for a long, long time – 18 years in fact. If you see me crying in my beer or sitting at a stop light blowing my nose, don’t worry. I’m just trying to get over a really bad break-up.