My kid — my eldest, my first-born, the one that changed everything with her arrival — is leaving for college soon. In some moments, I’m ecstatic. No more missed curfews and bad sleep. No more of my nagging to put the damn phone away. No more vegan meals to prepare. It’s going to be, as she would say, “lit!”
Yet, in most moments I worry. Sometimes about the small things like her going to class and going to frat parties, working the laundry machines and getting enough tofu in the cafeteria. But what has consumed me lately is worrying about whether we’re ready, whether I’ve parented her enough, loved her enough, created enough of a bond that I can let her go and she won’t drift away forever.
We had a rough start, she and I. Labor wrecked me. My mother likes to invoke the image of a watermelon getting pushed through a small opening, say a key hole. Well, this little watermelon left death and destruction in this door. I lost so much blood I couldn’t get out of bed for weeks. And then colic descended on our open-concept loft like a team of jack-hammers working on a tough spot right by my head. Jack hammers that didn’t need breaks or sleep. I won’t even get into the details about how I wanted to cut my breasts off to relieve the pain or how Doug’s career started nose-diving and he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide it from me. So I found it difficult to bond with my watermelon-turned-jack-hammer. There were so few shriek-free moments, so few minutes of sleeping curled up together. And just as she began to grow out of it, to sleep for a couple of hours here and there, to crawl around for bugs to examine (or eat), to say Mama and doggie, I got pregnant with her sister, and distracted from the World’s Most Adorable Toddler she was becoming.
That set the course for the next ten years or so. I can’t know for sure whether it was the lack of bonding or just her innate personality, but she is independent and adventurous. At two years old she would break free of my hand and run as fast as she could away from me in parking lots. She spent her preschool years searching for bugs or begging us to take her to see the newt breeding in Tilden Park. She met, pet, and learned the name of every dog we ever passed on the street. In school, she wore mismatched outfits (or occasionally hyper-matched, all green from head to toe, for example), she rejected hair brushing and most other kinds of hygiene, she interrupted the class with funny outbursts or outrageously wrong answers. In second grade the teacher created a U-shaped seating pattern and assigned her and another disrupter to the “mush-pot.” She would prance off to sleep-away camp with barely a good bye. In high school, she played on the all-male football team.
Sometime around middle school I made a conscious decision to bond with this child. Uninterrupted, our relationship seemed doomed to be cold and distant. I never really told my mother much; I just didn’t want to bother her. I had no practice in the subtle and volatile dance of talking to a teenager. Or being a mother. Honestly, I was scared. She was too, and even hid her face under the pillow when I would sit on her bed and try to talk about sensitive topics. Like bras. But I kept at it. I told her, like anything, you get better with practice. I asked her to tell me things that seemed slightly embarrassing but not earth-shattering. I told her more about my feelings, my struggles with the expectations of motherhood and disappointments with friends or work.
We increasingly did things together we both liked: bargain hunting for clothes, hiking in the hills with the dog, art museums, and trips to the beach. And then the endless hours of club volleyball. Long drives to Reno for Mother’s Day tournaments allowed us long conversations (often with friends buffering and helping). Gradually, we became close.
Sometimes I will look at her now, the deepness of her brown eyes, the shine of her black hair, and I see her as the chubby toddler who I wish I could go back and cherish. I wish I could just hang out with her for a day and meet 25 dogs on an aimless walk and squeeze her almost too tightly. But I can’t; she’s off: Three solids days of concerts in the park with no real plan for how to get home, weeks in the Panamanian rain forest with no cell service, serious relationships involving love and trust. I’m not a part of those crucial experiences. I don’t even get many details.
And now it’s done.
I know it’s not done done and some crazy percentage of kids move back in with their parents after graduating from college, but right now it seems like I’m at the end of the long and windy road of parenting. I’ve finished up the bulk of the messy, stressful, impactful, life-shaping parenting. And I wish I had done better. I wish I had more time to teach her life’s crucial lessons: say a strong “no,” make friends with people unlike yourself, never buy shoes that are too small, even if they are on clearance. I wish I had more time to know her, what makes her heart beat fast and what scares her to death.
I wish all that — and when I see her pile of laundry reaching for the ceiling, I wish the dorm move-in day would hurry up and get here already.
Shanti Brien is an educator, consultant, writer, and co-founder of Fogbreak Justice.