On my way home from dropping my oldest daughter at college, I realized that for the first time in 18 years and 66 days, I would not know the intimate details of her life. I didn’t know what she was going to eat for dinner that night or whom she would eat with. I didn’t know what she was going to wear the next day, what kind of mood she would be in, where she was going to go and who she was going to meet. Had she made any new friends yet? Would she be able to fall asleep easily in her new dorm room? I wouldn’t know.
Our society often portrays parents as deliriously happy and relieved when their children leave for college. I get that because parenting a teenager is intense: it’s exhausting, terrifying, frustrating, humbling and bewildering. But all summer before she left, I shared with friends that I while I was so excited for her, I was at the same time very sad that she was leaving. In return I would get bemused and sort of confused half-smiles in return, as if they were saying: You’ll see, it will be great.
[Related: What if I put my parenting experience on my resume?]
Parts of it are great. I have three other daughters, so one less person in the house has given me additional time and mental space. And there are parts of parenting a teenager that I don’t miss (like wondering what time she will be home on a weekend night). My daughter is thriving in college — she’s loving her new school, new friends, new freedom and life. She’s the happiest she’s ever been, and I’m so proud of how she’s adjusted and run headlong with open arms into this next phase. All of that brings me intense joy, relief, pride and peace.
But there is loss and grief too. There’s a pain point that you have as a parent that only gets activated by your relationship to your child. You know the pain point I’m talking about: the one that doubles you over, knocks the wind out of you, bruises your soul.
My parental pain point is sore and aching. I’m grieving that the 18 years and 66 days I had of knowing the intimate details of my daughter’s life are over. I always knew that this time was a finite gift and a privilege. In her young life (particularly from ages 3-5) I never thought this time would end. But it did. And I miss her. I really, really miss her.
When looking back over these 18 years and 66 days, I’ve thought that parenting is really a cruel trajectory. At the beginning of your relationship with your child, you cannot leave them unattended for a second: their life literally depends on you. Slowly your relationship becomes less and less intense so that eventually you’re just sending heart emojis to show you love them. It seems like a sick joke.
But with every ending, there’s also a beginning. The last time that my daughter wasn’t part of my day-to-day life, I was 28. Who am I now at 47? What will I do with the extra mental space and time that is not filled by my daughter? I’ll admit that I’ve been watching a lot of episodes of Sex and the City, just like I did at age 28 (although seeing it through a very different lens now — wow), and maybe I’ve been doing that to connect with my younger self. I know that eventually I’ll answer the “What am I going to do?” question, but first I’m going to allow myself to grieve. Parenting is always a mix of intense emotions at the same time, so there’s comfort in knowing that at least that part hasn’t changed.