Summer is ending and everyone is heading back to their respective lives, so I’m getting nostalgic about what it was like when my now adult children lived under our roof. Here is a blog I just wrote for The Huffington Post about missing my daughter and her friends. And these are my thoughts, below, about sending my son off into the world.
Thirty two years ago, the summer after I graduated from the University of Michigan, I eagerly stuffed my used Ford Escort with my scant possessions and drove 10 hours to Washington, D.C. to start my first job as a paralegal. The position was intended as a one year stint while I decided whether to pursue journalism or law school. Within a few months, I landed a job with a publishing company and ended up spending six years in our nation’s capital, where I fell in love with the vibrant city and began my life as a journalist.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I packed our 13-year-old van full of our son’s possessions and drove him to the identical destination the summer after he graduated from our alma mater. He’ll be starting a position with a federal program assistant teaching in a Washington, D.C. school. Though history is repeating itself in our family, it didn’t quite strike me until the long drive, where I had plenty of time to contemplate how the years since leaving D.C. had quickly flown by. My husband and I were newlyweds there. As we traversed the hills of Pennsylvania, I was awash with memories: the first friends we made who we’re still close with today; jogging in the sticky summers after work; lingering over dinners where we regularly split a bottle of wine; and riding the crowded metro to the mall for July 4th fireworks.
When my son was deciding where he should apply for jobs, I immediately suggested Washington, D.C. We hadn’t visited much since we left, so he knew little of it, but agreed it was worth trying. Once we headed there, staying with our long-time friends, he realized it was the right decision. He was immediately put at ease meeting his six new roommates, others in the same federal program. On the same metro we once rode, I pointed out all the young people surrounding us. We headed out to a hip restaurant in a revitalized area near the baseball stadium that was buzzing with excitement. I saw his eyes light up the way mine had when I first moved here so many years ago. Though I ventured here solo, not knowing anyone except one friend from college, he was able to have his parents accompany him, and see this city through our eyes.
This is our second launch. Our oldest child packed up her belongings three years ago and headed to the East Coast to start her new life. She attended college two hours away and spent the summers there, so the transition was slightly easier; we were more accustomed to life without her. Our son’s school is located near our house. Though he lived on campus with roommates, we saw him often. We could hear the door opening late at night when he stopped by spontaneously, desiring a cuddle with our cat or dinner leftovers. We could count on him to join us for birthdays and holiday dinners, or stop by whenever he needed the car. With our youngest heading back to her college in North Carolina in the fall we will truly be empty nesters without the occasional companionship of our only son.
When you drop your child at college, it’s difficult and heart wrenching to let them go. Still, there’s some consolation in knowing they’ll return home for holiday stretches and long summer breaks. College doesn’t substitute for the home where they were raised. But launching them after that is so much harder. We’ve already booked our son airline tickets to join us for Thanksgiving, and since the school will likely be closed for a winter break, I presumed he’d be back in December. My husband doubted it. “Washington, D.C. is his home now,” he said. Indeed, I realized that, though I wasn’t quite ready for it to be so. After parenting children for 25 years, I still like to think of our time apart as merely temporary.
I understand this phase is healthy, that letting go of your child is necessary and a part of life. But the separation is bittersweet. Those post-college years truly represent the end of childhood, when your parenting work is mostly done, your influence on their lives limited.
Two days after we returned from leaving our son, we received a text. “I love it here,” he said. It was gratifying to know that though we will miss him, his transition is going well. And just a few weeks later, I had a just as satisfying experience, when I ran into a friend at the bank, as I was transferring my son’s last month of rent money for his college apartment to his account. “You’re witnessing history!” I said to her and the bank teller, reflecting on what hopefully will be the end of our 22-year financial commitment to our son.
My husband and I are trying to take comfort in developments like that and in the meantime will cherish the remaining three years we have with our youngest on her breaks from college. As I watched her pack this week, she talked about the next time she’d be returning “home.” I smiled, grateful that she still views the place she was raised to be that home. I’ll take that, for now.