I did it. I dug in deep, pulled up my big girl pants, swallowed hard and moved through the moment I’ve been dreading since becoming a mom. I left our son at college.
I started mentally preparing for this transition months ago, but the past few weeks have been a blur. I became so overwhelmed with emotions that I found myself on auto-pilot, moving from task to task in a bit of a fog. I appreciated the distraction my to-do lists offered, allowing me a brief respite from dealing with all the feelings. (Wow- I’m surprised that word came out of me! Respite- what a cool word! Forgive me, I digress…) On several occasions I tried to write, a process I use to explore my emotions, but it was all mush. Eventually, I surrendered to the emotional stew that was now my brain, allowing myself some grace during this unique time in my life.
Transitions have always been tough on me, but this one was a doozy. Between our older son heading off to college, our younger son starting high school, navigating our parents, their care, and those shifting relationships, and my own health challenges -it was a lot! And because my brain didn’t quiet at night, I wasn’t sleeping well. My husband got used to finding me staring at the wall, lost in thought.
As I describe this, I get a visual image of painting with watercolors. You know, when you dip your brush in the water to clean off the paint? At the beginning, the paint from the brush is so beautiful. But as you continue to add colors and they mix together, the water becomes murky. That was me with my swirling emotions- grey and murky.
The lack of sleep reminded me of the time in my pregnancies when our boys had grown so big that I was unable to rest comfortably. I’d spend hours walking the halls of our home, envisioning what being a mom would look like. Eighteen years later and I was pacing the halls again. Except now I wasn’t birthing a child from my uterus, but from our house. And the labor pains weren’t in my lower back but in my heart.
My foggy head forced me to take a step back and cut myself some slack. With so much going on, work could wait. Processing all my emotions would happen in its own time. I released the judgments I was holding around meeting self-imposed deadlines for work and the pressure I felt to explore my feelings to gain a better understanding. I had a sense that the most important thing for me to do now was to remain present for our son.
He was having a hard time. The reality of leaving home was beginning to sink in and he was expressing a lot of doubt and apprehension. He’d never spent more than two nights away from us and suddenly he realized just how far away Chicago is from Los Angeles.
I remember when I went away to college. My dad felt that my relationship with my mom was too close and it was time to “cut the umbilical cord.” They left me as I waited in line for orientation and I distinctly recall feeling like there was something literally stuck in my throat. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that sensation was all the unspoken feelings- fears and emotions- I just couldn’t articulate, bunched up in my throat.
Our older son had no such experience. He has an ease at expressing himself that is beyond his years and his awareness during this time was profound. He articulated all he was experiencing. And by the time we arrived in Chicago his anxiety and fear had peaked.
This required me to reach into my toolbox and put my skills to work. A couple of things really assisted me in moving through this time.
First, it was important to acknowledge the heightened sense of emotion the entire family was experiencing. In the weeks leading up to his departure, my husband and I found ourselves getting snippy with each other. We did our best to own our own stuff and recognize how our emotions were closer to the surface during this unique time. In the testy moments, I leaned into compassion. Opening my heart as I witnessed the way our entire family moved through this transition allowed me to be more gentle, and helped me avoid the snippy, superficial arguments that bubbled up during this time.
Because I am a very emotionally expressive person (Translation- I’m a crier.), I realized that putting my feelings aside may help our son while we were in Chicago. This goes against my natural way of being, but our son didn’t need the added pressure of a weeping mom by his side as he dealt with this huge transition. Choice, discipline and intention became powerful tools. Each morning I set an intention to show up to my best ability in service to our son. When I started to get sad, I looked at our boy and realized it wasn’t helpful to express those feelings. So I chose to put my focus on something positive instead. And as he shared his fear and apprehension, I’d try to empower him to do the same. So despite the fact that we were both experiencing a slew of challenging emotions, we were able to put them aside and have a really great time!
Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of cry sessions. Acceptance was crucial. It was really important to meet our son where he was and give him the space to express himself. But to avoid dwelling in that space, I tried to reflect back to him my thoughts on how he could reframe things so that he could move through this gracefully. And in full disclosure, I found time away from him (as I’m sure he did) where I had some good ‘ole ugly cries to get it all out!
I also did my best to keep things in perspective. Our son wasn’t leaving us for years. And he wasn’t dying. My experience of losing our daughter was definitely influencing my perception of our son leaving for college; so I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself that these situations were completely different. I also wanted to be cautious not to diminish my experience. After all, my life’s purpose has been raising our boys. And making the choice to be a career mom wasn’t something I took lightly. So of course this was going to be a huge transition. But perspective is important, so I kept picturing myself zooming out, as if I was looking through a camera lens, to see the big picture.
And there was one thought that was most helpful in keeping me grounded. Even though I originally questioned his choice to attend college in Chicago because I felt it was like diving into the deep end of the pool, our son was steadfast in his decision. He defended his position at every step of the journey. He was happy, excited, and confident about his choice. And I trust that. Because here’s the truth: Our son has his own spiritual curriculum that he’s living out. He’s calling these experiences to him for his own learning. So the best thing I can do is allow him the dignity of his own experience, even if that includes last minute doubts and fears. I’m not saying that’s easy. Any Mom will tell you that watching your child move through these emotions is hard. But I’ve got to remember this is his journey and my job is to support and love him through it.
I’ve felt an undercurrent of happiness and excitement carrying us through the experience. Planning and helping to organize his move was right up my wheelhouse. It was so much fun! Sorting his things gave us the opportunity to reminisce. We shared memories, laughter, and tears. And as we packed, I pictured myself packing away memories from all the stages of his life. It was a beautiful process. And I began to see that this transition wasn’t just about creating a new chapter for our son, but also for me. There’s a whole big, vast space that is opening- ripe for me to explore and experience!
So I keep moving forward.
I won’t lie. Saying goodbye to him was one of the hardest moments in my life. The feelings were intense. Although he’s eighteen, suddenly I saw him as a little ten-year-old boy, tears in his eyes, trying his best to be strong. Somehow I honored his wish and avoided crying until I got in my Lyft. Once in the car, I let it all out. Luckily, my Lyft driver left her son at college the day before, so she knew what to do. She put the music up real loud and let me weep.
My baby. He’s growing up.
Once home, I felt as though I was missing an appendage from my body. The house is out of balance without our older son. But with time, I’m starting to unpack all of the emotions and see the many opportunities available to me (and our son) through this experience. It’s like a game of Pick up Stix- gently pulling out one issue at a time, exploring, looking for the learning, and then, healing.
Social media is flooded with pictures of kids heading back to school and starting college. My heart fills as I recall the many pictures I’ve posted through the years. Then my thoughts go to all the moms, standing behind the camera, taking the pictures, and all the feelings and emotions we endure as moms, moving through this time.
I have such a strong sense of camaraderie, community and family as I connect with other moms through this experience. At our son’s Orientation, I was amazed at how vulnerable complete strangers were, sharing their fears, apprehensions, and sadness. We are a fierce bunch, grappling with so many things at once. And I’m grateful for the connections we share.
What an honor and a privilege it was to be able to experience this rite of passage with our son. Yes, at times witnessing him in all his doubts and emotions was unbearable. But the bottom line is that I was also able to love him through this pivotal transition. What a gift!
My parents have a painting hanging on their wall with this poem:
“Parents give us two great things.
One is roots.
The other wings.”
The weight of this poem is hitting me differently than it did several months ago and I’m flooded with gratitude.
Our boy is doing great adjusting to his new life. He even did his first load of laundry! And I’m returning to a semblance of normalcy in my routines. There may be blips ahead, but we’ve cleared the biggest hurdle. He’s off on his own to fly and explore. And I can’t wait to see what he does next.
If you’d like support moving through this or any transition in midlife, please reach out to me at sarahaltman.com