When the first kid goes away

College. We’ve actually been in the college realm for two years now. But this year, it’s different. This year, the eldest child is going away.

Not living in her house, not sleeping in her bed. Not sitting on the couch insisting we look at TikTok dog videos or watching a Marvel Universe show on TV as a family eating homemade popcorn her dad made.

Away from us.

Two years ago, that idea was a non-starter. Between the pandemic, and other personal reasons, there was no chance that she would start her college experience away from home. Knowing that, my heart held a pocket of calm, knowing she would be close to us, we knew where she was (for the most part) and she’d come home to her dogs and cat and sleep with her head on her own pillow.

In those two years, lots of things happened. Good things. She went to school locally and gave herself the time and space to redefine herself, and to live up to the potential we all knew she had but for many reasons couldn’t always access. She started doing things she loved again, performing on stage, digging into academics and making a new group of friends. Smiles and laughter crept in as she started to have some fun. Her own pocket of calm was found and she made progress on her new path. It wasn’t always calm, per se, but she was on the right track and moved forward, even when it felt like a meandering river. A new “normal” emerged for her, which I think she started to accept with cautious optimism.

During her late-adolescent years, my husband and I worked hard on the necessary skill-set of stepping back, giving her more space to process and act on her own terms. We did this, even when it didn’t feel so good to do so, because we knew that it was necessary to do it gradually. When you see your kid struggle with heightened anxiety, your instinct is to help, fix, assuage and comfort. You want to get rid of the thing that is causing the anxiety spike so your kids can return to feeling level-headed and calm. We learned, through years of therapy, that an anxious brain never really feels completely level and calm, even when they seem quiet, so the best support we can give is allowing her to develop the self-soothing and coping strategies to manage her own brain.

Now that she is leaping away from adolescence, she has learned a lot about how her brain works and how to manage the spikes. She has also taught us a lot about her experience and shown just how capable she is. She has shown us that she can live in the discomfort, using a combination of distraction and a bucket of resources when she feels she needs them. Most importantly, she is starting to embrace the idea that she is a work-in-progress and that her path isn’t always going to be linear.

With each success, and each recovery from failure (a success in its own right), I knew she was heading closer to independence. This timeI knew I would have to step back even a little more, let go, and let her do her thing, in her way. It’s a time I’ve been looking forward to, eager to see her function more on her own, and maybe give our younger kid more space to grow, and have some more one-on-one time with Mom and Dad. That stepping back process, when it’s in your own home, is scary, but it’s gradual. When you drop off your kid and leave; that’s a whole other level that I don’t know if I’ll ever find the right words to describe.

The last few weeks before the big move were about “planning and preparing.” The physical prep: securing the lease, roommates, school supplies, home supplies, etc.; that’s the “easy” part. The mental prep is a whole other ballgame; how do you prepare to walk away from your baby girl? It’s a necessary truth, I know. Maybe the pile of stuff by the fireplace that was waiting to be packed in the car was the quiet reminder that this rite of passage was inevitable. It gave me something to focus on – making sure she had what she needed to be as comfortable as possible with us not there. In reality, I think she already had that, and it had nothing to do with the physical pile of “stuff.” She was just…ready.

In the last few weeks, I admit, I’ve enjoyed a slightly more shmoopy, more snuggly version of the elder child. I know she was very aware of the big change that’s coming and has decided that a few more hugs and impromptu Starbucks runs is necessary. I had some tears, just enough to remind me that this move affects me too. They remind me how far we’ve all come, and how f@&$ing proud I am of her.

The move-in day was a Saturday. The crying day, for me anyway, was Friday. I was processing the hard reality every time I saw her mostly empty room, every time I thought of how she wouldn’t be sleeping in her bed with the dog at her feet, or how I wouldn’t be able to scratch her back when I needed to wake her up to tell her something. I walked around the house a little zombie-like, knowing there was car-packing to do and organization to finish before we took the 3-hour trek to her new place. Her college place. The place where her new adult brain would form just a little more, apart from us.

After a final Sunday breakfast, we dropped her back at her place, met her apartment mates, and decided it was time to go. There were a few tears, mostly on my husband’s part, who had been keeping me together before the trip started. We took a few more pics, grabbed a few more hugs, and got back in the car to start the separation process. Of course, we texted a bit on the road, because we both needed it, reassuring each other that we were both okay.

To be honest, I felt pretty at peace about leaving. Another pocket of calm. We helped to set her up with everything she needed. She was in the driver’s seat, and we used our life experience to make sure the contingencies we could think of were planned for. Now, we feel confident that she can fly solo.

I’m hoping to see random texts and phone calls just to hear my voice once classes start. It might be too much to ask for, especially once she gets into her groove, but a mom can dream. When I need a little college girl fix, I’ll send her a funny GIF. Now I have to get good at putting together great care packages. Thank god there’s Amazon Prime.

One day at a time, adjusting to our new normal.

Me and my gorgeous kid outside her new college apartment.

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