Feature

The secret sorrow of parents sending their children off to college

My first-born child is leaving for college. I am not okay. I am freaking out.

My family's three small bedrooms are smushed side by side by side like hideaway nests. Perched above the bustling world with its snapping predators, careless traffic, and vexing noise, the cozy treehouse where we slumber in proximity is quiet and still. Warm and laundry-scented. Closely knit.

For literally thousands of mornings, I've opened my eyes to the sunlit, soul-settling certainty that the people who matter most to me are within earshot of a groggy-but-grateful "G' morney!" Even when I wake from pre-dawn nightmares, their collective presence offers deep and immediate comfort. It's an absolute: As sure the sun will rise, my husband and two sons are near me, curled up, tucked in, at ease and at peace.

But that's about to change. My son Stone, the subject of my very first column 16 years ago, leaves for college across the country later this month. All summer, friends have been checking in. "Soooo … are you okay?" Yeah! "Freaking out?" Naw, I'm good! Exciting times! So stoked for him! All under control! Let's do this!

As my punctuation divulges, though, I'm not okay. I'm freaking out. Honestly, it feels like giving birth again — only I'm pushing for three months. My child is being physically removed from me. To sleep on the other side of our tumultuous nation. Where I won't know if he's sleeping peacefully. Or if he's hungry. Or lonely.

To cope, I'm shopping — obsessively collecting tiny versions of anything he might ever need in life: itty-bitty stain spray, Cort-Aid stick, Kind bars, 1.5-oz. sunscreen, Emergen-C packets, pocket umbrella, mini-stapler. He's horrified, of course. But I think maybe if I send enough "home" along with him — the caregiving, owie-fixing, shiver-preventing, frustration-banishing parts of home — then this separation won't feel so violent to me. If I can't know that he's safe in his nest next door, then I want — no, I need to know that he's at home in the great big world. With, you know, travel-size provisions.

You should have seen his face when I brought home the teensy-weensy sewing kit. "I mean … Mom," he started, eager to discourage me without utterly unhinging me; it's a delicate line just now. "I don't even know how to sew."

I meant to teach him how. I thought there'd be time. There isn't. There were movies I was sure we'd watch together one day. I can see now we won't.

When Stone was a baby and we spent hour after hour after hour after hour after hour staring at each other on the sofa … just making exhausted faces and exasperated sounds at one another … waiting till it was time to eat again … or nap again … or cry again (first him, then me; we took turns), people said, "Enjoy it! It goes by so fast." And I thought hateful things about them, wondering why they'd waste precious energy saying something so stupid when they could say something useful like, "Please can I hold your child for eight to 11 minutes so you can go bathe the sad sack that used to be your body?"

But look at that: Time's up. Off he'll go, begrudgingly lugging a shoebox stuffed with trinkets and tinctures of home, while I sit trying to remember my Lamaze breathing and hoping it'll do more good this time around.

Until then, I'll probably find myself startling awake in the middle of the night, again and again, in some subconscious preparation for mornings-to-come — when a croaked "G' morney" will fall on two ears fewer, in a treehouse with one empty nest.

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