“I just read that whole thing start-to-finish,” my husband marveled.
It wasn’t “Middlemarch.” It was a Chicago Tribune column about the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But he read it, start-to-finish, on a Sunday morning, which is normally a whirlwind of backyard baseball and elaborate breakfast orders and someone making slime/pancakes/a craft involving a glue gun and someone needing a ride to Ben’s and someone needing a ride to Target as soon as it opens to buy more glue.
On this particular Sunday, though, we were alone. My kids are on a five-day vacation with their dad, my ex-husband, leaving us time and space to do things like read newspaper articles start-to-finish.
It’s lovely. It’s terrible.
I’m a long way from dropping kids off at college, but I’m guessing this is a taste of the emotional stew that a lot of parents are experiencing in this season of launching.
“It’s not a death. And it’s not a tragedy,” Boston Globe columnist Beverly Beckham writes in a 2006 essay about her children leaving for college. “But it’s not nothing, either.”
The Globe reprints Beckham’s column every August, and I re-read it every summer when my kids take their annual trip without me. It helps me make sense of why my temporary reprieve from child care, my mini-honeymoon, my five days of uninterrupted quiet and autonomy and, if we want to, chips and salsa for dinner, are punctuated, always, with a little sadness.
Not grief. Nothing even close. Not dread either. Just a longing.
“A chapter ends. Another chapter begins. One door closes and another door opens. The best thing a parent can give their child is wings,” Beckham writes. “I read all these things when my children left home and thought then what I think now: What do these words mean?”
When your kids leave home, she writes, it’s not just a chapter change. It’s a sea change.
“Would that you could close a door and forget for even a minute your children and your love for them and your fear for them, too,” she writes.
You can’t. You carry it with you everywhere. Of course you do.
In my case: What’s five days? A blip compared with college, with its semesters and its years and its signal that your child is leaving to join (and change) the larger world.
But it’s not nothing, either.
It’s a taste of the mental gymnastics: I should text her and see how she’s doing! I should let her live in the moment. I should let him know I miss him! I shouldn’t make this about me. I should check if everything’s OK! I would hear if everything wasn’t OK.
It’s an odd sort of nostalgia — the kind you feel for a moment that you’re still very much living. You’re not done parenting. The work of it, the joy of it, the worry of it, the reward of it — that’s all ahead of you every bit as much as it’s behind you. But their absence feels like something just ended.
It’s an invitation, maybe more than anything, to sit still with your life choices, your memories, your hopes, your mistakes. That’s hard to do when they’re begging to go to Target. It’s easy to do when the house is too quiet.
When my kids were little, I used to make up stories for them about a pebble (named Pebble) who lived in search of his family after being kicked along a sidewalk by various passersby. It sounds tragic, but it wasn’t. Pebble went on all sorts of hilarious adventures on his way back home, and he always, by the end, was reunited with his parents.
My daughter and I were walking home from registering for her seventh-grade classes the other day, and she kicked a stray pebble as we walked. “Maybe that was Pebble,” she said, close to 11 years after I started telling her little Pebble tales.
You forget, sometimes, that inside their big-kid bodies are all of their little-kid moments and memories and triumphs and traumas.
Their absence reminds you. Whether its a five-day absence or a semester-long absence, the space they occupied just a few days prior is suddenly filled with the whole of them — who they were, who they are, who they’re becoming.
Maybe college drop-offs won’t feel like a shock to my system after years of these temporary separations. Maybe I’ll be an old pro at farewells, and I’ll give a TED Talk on how to avoid rookie missing-your-kid mistakes.
Maybe. But I doubt it. I think if these little tastes of longing are good for anything, it’s to remind me that you can feel, wholeheartedly, two competing things at once: Joy and sadness. Pride and worry. Relaxation and unease. Slow down, time; speed up, time.
That’s a lesson I figure I’ll be leaning on through all the chapters of parenting. And hopefully I can help my kids understand it too.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @heidistevens13.