As I write this, the mile markers tick off the 7-hr distance between my eldest and his family. Although the route is familiar to him now, this journey signals his first move-in without us. This time last year, we had just returned from freshman drop-off and were feeling low indeed.
So much of what is written about the college experience is focused on the growth of the students as they leave the nest. And rightfully so, that is what this period signifies. However, I think we tend to overlook the fact that the family left behind sees some significant growth and self-exploration as well.
While our students are off finding themselves, we find ourselves with a shifting family dynamic. No matter if it is your first to leave, the last or somewhere in between, each departure takes something from the group.
But, the trick is seeing this as a positive.
In our case, two younger brothers were initially devastated to say goodbye to their brother. They had always viewed him as the compass and never thought much about developing their own sense of direction. Without him, the boys found their foothold and assumed new roles. The middle matured into more of an independent thinker and the youngest became more responsible and a better student. The spotlight had been on the impending graduate for literally years; how refreshing for the siblings to have some balance restored.
My husband was more vulnerable during this transition than I had ever seen him. Well, since the day we brought that same boy into the world, anyway. His heart cracked just like mine and we shared our fears in the dark as we lay sleepless those first few nights. Weeks passed, the worries ebbed and he focused more on the man his son was becoming. Separation allowed father and son to see each other through a new lens. My son, out quasi-adulting, hesitantly admitted that some of his dad’s crazy advice and rules are based in logic. And his dad saw that, despite all appearances to the contrary, some of what he preached for 18 years had sunk in. A mutual respect developed between the two that may not have transpired without his exodus to college.
And then there is me, mom, and a more complicated case indeed. I had the good fortunate to be home with these boys every day and our bond is unshakable. Through roughly 6,500 days of rearing children, I believed that my presence was the backbone of good parenting. Yet, when he left, I realized that just being in the bleachers, the audience or in the same room is not motherhood. Rather it’s in the way you communicate with each other, how you let them fail without judgment, encourage without enabling—simply-- how you love. I learned that when you are doing it well, parenting goes the distance--literally. As the semester rolled along, I exhaled and finally took pride in what our guidance and love had produced.
Do we miss him? Yes, immeasurably. But, unlike last year when I felt I had left part of my heart on campus, this year our goodbye made my heart full and complete. He had shown us what he could do and we were all better for it.