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Saying Goodbye to Kids at College with a Huge Smile and Dry Eyes

A big family sounded like such a good idea at the time. Those babies were just so darn cute. We’d waited for seven years to start a family, and once we did, we just kept going and going and going. I was pregnant or nursing for the next seven years. Four beautiful children and two miscarriages later, the Marinucci house was bustling with laughter, tears, toys, and laundry—lots of laundry.

Always a working mom, I started working from home after birthing Number Three. But I did take a short breather from work after Number Four. I continued to squeeze something of “my own” into each day, and oh, I was tired—really, really tired. But, there was never a regret.

The kids grew, and I found their aging brilliant. I loved every new stage. Yes, even the tween and teenage years, because there was always a tolerable beginning and end to these tougher times.

I think I have been saying goodbye to my kids, bit by bit, since those early years.

I remember those occasional opportunities when a relative or friend invited two, maybe even three of our kids, to spend the night. I’d be giddy and would hum as I packed and doubled checked their little bags. My husband and I would walk them to the car, buckle them in and deliver kisses and last-minute instructions. Then, we’d slam the door shut; wave our arms in huge, overhead arches, standing there until the car pulled out of sight.

At first, we’d have to suppress the urge to rush after the rearview window, pull the kids from their seats and usher our brood back into that protective cocoon we called home. But soon thereafter we’d rediscover our joy in each other’s company.

In a remarkably quiet house, we’d slowly uncover the freedom of being together, without that invisible tie between mother and child that prevents you from giving your partner undivided attention.

I once asked my father if he ever stopped worrying about his kids. He emphatically announced, “NEVER! You are never free from the fear that something could happen to those most precious beings.”

I felt almost cursed with this truth. But somehow, my parental fear consumed me less as the kids grew. Their lives began to take shape, and I became amazed, even sometimes envious, as their interests, desires, and personalities took flight.

I didn’t want to turn away and long for the past when I held them close. I wanted to nudge them closer to their dreams.

We drove to Chicago to take our first child to college. We carried boxes into the dorm, went to lunch, walked around the beautiful campus and said goodbye. As we pulled away, my husband asked if I was okay.

I turned to him with dry eyes and a huge smile and said, “Not, just okay, I feel great!”

He grinned and said, “Me too!”

We high-fived and headed home.

Number Two and I made the trip to college alone. During the four-hour ride, we talked and sang, and she told me I had been a good mother. She wanted me to stay, help her unpack, meet her roommates, take her to lunch and unpack some more. Finally, I told her I had to go. Her hands became clammy and her smile faded.

After our mama bear/baby bear hug, I pulled away and said, “Honey, you CAN do this!”

She gave me a weak smile and started for the dorm entrance. Every few steps, she’d turn and wave. I thought, “Geez-oh-man, how long is this going to take?”

I gave her one last big wave, the Italian toot of the horn, and pulled away. Once again, I was totally dry-eyed.

In the next three years, my husband and I will say goodbye to our last two children, and I couldn’t be happier.

In fact, I am so looking forward to making that next drive in a car packed to the ceiling with comforters, a television, and way too many shoes and clothes that I have decided I am either a complete freak of nature or just premenopausal.

Dani Altieri Marinucci

Dani Altieri Marinucci is president of the Parent to Parent Network, a non-profit organization that promotes parent education on all issues impacting the health, safety and well-being of children preschool through college. A former journalist, her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites across the US and Canada.