My daughter left for college and when I think about it my eyes fill with tears

Your children are not your children / They are the sons and daughters of life that longs for itself… You are the bows from which your children / Like living arrows are sent.

I have always loved this poem by Kahlil Gibran. As our children move from one phase to the next, on their journey to independence, this seems particularly appropriate. And never more than now, when my oldest daughter and all her friends go to college. Some went there last week, others tomorrow; like flocks of birds migrating for the winter, they fly the nest, making their way to the first stage of their adult life.

Throughout high school our house has been full of girls – we live around the corner from the school, so our living room has become an unofficial grade six common room. It’s normal to come home and find a group of teenagers drinking coffee or baking cakes in the kitchen. The conversation is intense; I love their passion for the environment and their compassion for their friends, the crazy colored hair and the micro skirts and tops. Their dramas and triumphs are an ever-changing soap opera; who’s dating who, who’s “hooked up” (snogged), who’s “peng” (fancy / hot), who’s gone where to study what. Sometimes I’m left out as they snuggle up outside on the balcony in the cold sneaking a cheeky fagot (I pretend I don’t know and still desperate to hear the hot gossip being shared in the air cold). But not anymore.

In a few days, they will all be gone. The kitchen will be quiet. This time will be over. I pretend not to care; I’m a pretty active mom as we discuss student finances, new bank accounts, and whether she needs a meal plan. But when I think about it too much, or imagine her bedroom without her constantly building “bedroom” (god, that’s a mess), I get a little wobbly. I don’t want her to know it but when I think about her leaving, my eyes fill with tears.

It’s visceral, not logical. Intellectually, I am proud that my daughter is fleeing the nest, going to college. But emotionally it’s different. I know she will never come back; never live here the same way again. The 18 years we had when she was with us are still coming to an end. It is a new phase, a new era. But it’s also a loss – it strikes deeply, I remember so many other markers and losses along the parenting path; the sadness of stopping breastfeeding, the leakage of milk, this bond of flesh nourishing the flesh cultivated in my broken belly. I was inconsolable – but then I went back to work, and it was over.

Or the first day I dropped her at school, she was trying to be brave, pretending to be carefree, and then at the end a frantic, “Don’t go mom…” her lower lip quivering. I stayed strong for her, biting my lip to stop the tears – then I cried all the way back. Or when she left elementary school for the last time – in a big school where parents are forbidden, where even appearing outside of school is an embarrassing sin.

I am not the only one who feels this. I spoke with a friend whose daughter left last week. She says that every time she walks past her daughter’s room, she cries. Another friend wanted to see her offspring so badly when she left last year that she traveled all the way to Bristol to bring them extra towels (my daughter would kill me if I did that). Another friend tries to reassure me by telling me that she will be back – confident that she wants to make her nest, fed up with her adult boomerang children who never seem to leave.

I think I would love for her to come back. One of the joys of the lockdown was that there were so many more teens; forced to be at home with boring old parents, cooking, laughing, studying, watching TV huddled on the couch. Paradise.

So, for those of you who have taken this parenting route – savor the days, revel in those chubby hands, those sticky hugs. Put them away for when those arrows-like children move away from you in the future. Bitter.

Eleanor Mills is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of noon.org.uk, a new platform for women in their 40s

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Daniel Lange

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