This August my younger daughter Emma went to college, joining her sister Louisa, who is currently in her junior year. Both girls had spent the summer at home– working, seeing friends and traveling. Aware that they would be away for much of the coming year, I made the most of our time together. Still, the summer days seemed compressed into twitter-sized bites: June was graduation and rain; July was travel and entertaining visitors; August was shopping and packing for college.
While we were dashing through The Container Store, Uniqlo and Target, running to doctor’s appointments and filling out forms, I didn’t have time to think about how I’d feel when my husband and I left both girls at school. The orientation weekend was hot and frantic: we hauled cartons up five flights, attended events, and collapsed. On the way home my husband and I talked about how this transition would affect us, but it was clear that I, who had been very involved in our daughters’ daily lives, would likely feel it more.
My friends had prepared me for an emotional reaction to the empty nest. One had cried for three hours after dropping off her son; another had cried for two months; a third had burst into tears when she returned home to her child’s pristine room. One mother had gone on a trek in Nepal the day after her daughter left for school, to “forget about Kate.” I read a blog by the mother of a college freshman whose posts conveyed anxiety, fraught communication, and tears.
I have been surprised at my reaction to my daughters’ living away from home, given that my parenting style has been attentive, “hands on,” and (some might say overly) involved. I have missed my girls, but more than a sense of loss I have felt excitement for all of us. What my daughters are doing-separating and becoming independent-and what I am doing- letting them go and establishing an identity apart from my role as their mother-is very similar. And it feels as if we should all be doing this now.
I have a new perspective on the talks I had with my grandmother when she was in her late eighties. We reminisced about things we had done together; she seemed amazed that those days of having butterscotch sundaes at Schrafft’s were still so vivid, and wistful that they were thirty years ago. Now I understand how she felt. The twenty years I’ve spent with my daughters have gone by so fast they might have been strobe flashes: diapers, colic, swings, Gymboree, Barney, the carousel, Dr. Gribetz, toddlers programs, emergency room, Hannah Anderson, Acorn School, Halloween costumes, Dr. Meislin, Lollipops Concerts, Brotherhood, Ballet Academy East, Little Mermaid, Camp Hillard, holiday dinners, apple picking, soccer, smocked dresses, Spice Girls, Economy Candy, dentist, Mayrose, The Young People’s Chorus, Isadora Duncan, tennis camp, Bronx Zoo, community service, safety patrol, PTA, Bat Mitzvahs, Broadway shows, orthodontist, allergist, Miami, Marcia D. D., Snooty the manatee, Radio City, Nutcracker, Tenement Museum, Brooklyn Bridge walk, Merchant’s House, Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, Big Apple Circus, science fairs, Key West, Westport, Crystal Theatre, Wishlist, Julian Krinsky, community service, Pompeii, Paris, Cannes, Rome, Stuyvesant, Hewitt, Applause, BCBG, Uniqlo, Café Habana, TASIS, Classics Trip, Japan, Iowa Writers Workshop, Germany, college trips, SATs, college applications, graduation, and so on and so on and so on. And then, after a few blinks, we packed up the car and drove them off to college.
I had my children when I was older, and left full time employment when they were born. I had many part-time occupations while they were growing up, some of which entailed a lot of work, but being a Mom was my vocation. In adjusting to motherhood at a distance I have let go of micro-managing details like what time the girls go to sleep, and how they are handling classes, studying and laundry. Things seem to be going well. When they need me (those phone calls have started with “I fractured my wrist,” or “I have a 103 fever”) I’m on the road to be a “present” Mom. But it is quieter now at home in a way that is helping me to think more clearly. For the first time in twenty years the spaces in my Daytimer’s notebook that were packed with school meetings, performances, appointments and volunteer commitments are filling up with my own work.
I think our daughters’ style has made this transition easier; while moving toward independence, they still respect my desire to communicate. In Louisa’s first two years at school her calls have become less frequent, and her response time for returning calls has been slower. She is busy; she lives off campus, has a car at school, and is the director of her a cappella group. Emma has moved into autonomy in her choice of classes, and is also involved in a cappella singing. I speak with them and we email frequently, but I also understand that I’m less central to their lives. The future they see for themselves will likely grow out of the experiences they are now having on their own, as much as the ones they had at home.
Our family might have made the transition gentler also by installing a canine support system. The year before Louisa left for college we got our first dog, a miniature dachshund. Henry is not a substitute child; we have not scheduled his ERBs. But he is a lively presence in our home who needs to be fed, walked and played with, and who likes nothing better than to sit on my lap, acting as a muse.
In the trees by the Long Island Sound in Westport, where I often take walks with my daughters and dachshund, there is a flock of green parrots—Monk Parakeets—that make their home on the coast. They are wild birds, rumored to have escaped from the pet trade, with an interesting society. Their nests are large twig structures that can house many members of a colony in separate apartments. And, unusual for a parrot, Monk Parakeets have helpers, often their grown offspring, who assist in the care of the young.
The birds are brilliant green and vocal, and it is wonderful to see them swooping through the sky toward their nests. When a group of parrots alights from a branch, it can appear as if the leaves are taking flight. I prefer the image of the full tree of the green parrots to that of the empty nest. We are all still in our tree, with a twig nest high in the branches. Each of us is free to take flight-looking like leaves or birds, depending on the light-and know we can come back home.
Aimee Garn is a writer and designer and a publisher of children’s books (www.prettypleasepress.com). She is the chairman of NYC-Parents in Action, Inc., (www.parentsinaction.org), having served as president for the past four years.