I walk into my daughter’s room, the day after she leaves for her senior trip to Europe, and my eyes fill with tears. Clothes are strewn everywhere, tags have been cut off last-minute sock purchases, and empty boxes of toothpaste and sunscreen litter the floor. These are the physical remains of my 18 year-old daughter’s all-night packing frenzy. Normally I would be angry and leave it for her to clean up (even if it takes weeks). Instead, I fold every piece of clothing with care and gently return her makeup, hair accessories, and shoes to their place. I feel a deep ache and longing for the girl-turned-young woman who embodied this room. At the end of the summer, she will be starting her next adventure in college in New York. I will have to let go again, as I did with my son. I thought it would be easier the second time around. But it’s not.
It was simple to ignore the impending loss while being immersed in the flurry of end-of-year activities at school. I cheered from the sidelines as my daughter rushed to baccalaureate, grad parties, graduation, and now I’m left with this — silence. I know it all too well. It’s the sound of things to come. I’ve written blog posts about letting go the first time around, and the mistakes I’ve made parenting young adults. I don’t plan to repeat my errors, so I am more cautious. I try to look at things more from my children’s point of view. As one of my readers, Bonnie, reminded me: “Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.” Although it’s cliche, this saying on an embroidery piece from a Maine gift shop is undeniably true. (Ironically, I am in Maine right now as I write this.)
This is the trial period of letting go while my daughter is traveling in Europe. She is having the time of her life, and I am so very happy for her. In the void, I hold onto everything that reminds me of her — nectarines from the fridge, the smell of her perfume lingering in her room, the extra epipen we have in the house to protect her from peanut allergies. I know I’m feeling sorry for myself. I cried about 10 times for no reason. First world problems. But this is big for me. This is the end of motherhood as I know it.
The launching phase means I will have to look at myself in the mirror for real: what are you going to do with yourself now? You’ve devoted almost half of your life to motherhood so you’re not used to being anything else. My identity is tied up in my role as a mother. This is all I’ve known for a long time and frankly I don’t remember my other self anymore. Over time, I suspect it will come back to me. I will continue to write. I’ve been in a slump lately, but I hope I can get back to editing the latest draft of my family’s story. I want to get back to being a lawyer again, at least part-time. I’ve reactivated my law license and I’m looking into doing public interest work. I’m desperate to do something about babies being separated from their mothers at the border. I am especially drawn to that issue right now, for obvious reasons.
I want to take up new hobbies too. I would love to garden, paint, and meditate. I want to appreciate the moment. Through the practice of mindfulness, I would like to tune into my feelings and make sense of them. It helps to write them down and struggle with them on paper. I will learn to handle the familial burdens that still await, like being a good daughter to my aging parents. For the moment, I give myself permission to feel sorry for the loss of childhood, this period of motherhood, and this season of my life. I’ve been told you can do different things at different points in your life, not all at once. I hope it’s not too late.
The same day my daughter left for Europe, I read the book she had given us this past Christmas called Fun Without Dick and Jane: A Guide to Your Delightfully Empty Nest. She knew we were going to have a hard time dealing with her leaving, so she wanted to offer us some help. It’s a hilarious book about empty-nesting and how to live a good life after the last child flies the coop. I laughed out loud as I imagined myself wearing red lipstick everyday, just because. I visualized getting out of my yoga pants and wearing nice slacks to go to the grocery store or wherever. My husband and I have talked about taking spontaneous vacations up the California coast. I beamed thinking about driving with the windows rolled down and my hair blowing in the wind, but then my smile turned into a frown and I started to cry. I will miss her.