When my son climbed aboard the school bus for his first day of freshman year of high school, I was overcome with emotions I didn’t expect. Somehow, in all the years of putting him on a bright yellow bus, it never occurred to me that the number of first days of school were limited. In the throes of first day of school chaos every year, it never dawned on me that, eventually, his first days of school, complete with the requisite pictures in front of our front door, would come to a close.
On that day a few years ago, I cried harder than I did on his first day of kindergarten. But I wiped my tears and set about occupying myself until my teens burst in the door with mountains of first week of school paperwork. I consoled myself with the fact that we were just at the beginning of high school. We had years of time in front of us, and I tried to give myself a pep talk about being present in the moment. Four years was a long time, I reminded myself.
Yeah, that four years disintegrated in the blink of an eye.
A few months ago, as we sat on the beach watching the sun melt into the water at the end of the day, my son looked over at me and said, “Mah, I have some news. I think I’ve found a college I really love.” At first, I was overjoyed. No one tells you how hard it is to motivate a teenager to do a thorough college search and the fact that he’d done any research at all was cause for celebration.
But then I saw the look in his eyes, the look that seemed to say he knew he was about to say something that would break my heart.
“Mah, the college is in California,” he said with an expectant expression.
California is a 3,000-mile yellow school bus ride from where we live. The shock of his words caught me off guard. The emotions on his first day of freshman year were nothing compared to the feelings of hearing my first born wants to fly the nest and go to college so far from home.
From the time he was born and the nurse placed him in my arms, I was keenly aware that my son was mine on loan. But, in all of the chaos of carpooling and child rearing, I wasn’t prepared to feel such heavy grief when it came to watching him prepare to leave home.
No one tells you that just when the time with your teens gets good, when they are young adults with vibrant ideas, senses of humor, and unique world views, you suddenly, and seemingly in a flash, have to just let them go.
To California, of all places. It felt like a sucker punch to the gut and I was left gasping for air without warning.
To my credit, though I was shocked and admittedly cried at his newest revelation about his future, I didn’t immediately shut his plans down to save my broken mama heart. Instead, I simply wiped my eyes and said, “Tell me why this is a good fit for you.”
And then another unexpected moment happened. His face lit up as he gushed with the details of the program he’d found. He couldn’t get the words out fast enough and, as I watched him excitedly explain how he was pretty sure he’d found a community where he would thrive, it was hard not to get swept up in his enthusiasm.
That moment when you see your teen flushed with excitement about heading to college is a game changer. Because, when I think about the order of things, and the way his transition to college should roll out, do I really want him to be the one holding back tears as I skip out of the dorm room I chose for him? Do I want him to be filled with sadness or regret about the choice he’s made because I selfishly couldn’t let go?
I think we all know the answer.
No, everything is just as it should be, as much as my heart wants to break into a thousand pieces when I think about him going to college far away.
As my son finished spilling his exhilaration and stood there waiting for me to answer, my eyes filled tears again. This time, they were tears of joy. He’s finding his way, yes, but he still needs me to help him feel okay about his choices. He’s scared, too, I know. But he’s ready and we both know it.
My baby is ready to leave home because I’ve raised him to leave me.
It’s a job well done, I try to tell myself. My baby is leaving the nest.
I’m still going to cry like a baby when I walk out of that dorm room, no matter how spectacular that California sunset is that night.