Six years ago our oldest, Gina, went off to college among the Minnesota bluffs of the Mississippi River. When she chose Winona State, I was reminded of the comment someone had made about finding a wedding dress: when it’s the right one, you’ll feel it. After several road trips to try on universities, Gina had that feeling about Winona State. We’d spent a morning with the admissions counselor, and after a tour of the campus, Gina turned to me on the quad with a smile and a glow in her face that will be etched in my mind forever – she’d found her fit.
On the day Gina packed to leave for school, Jay and I slipped out to the Adirondack chairs in the backyard and began to grieve the leaving of our energetic, cheerful daughter. We talked as if a chunk of the sun was disappearing and we couldn’t imagine how our family would get along without it. There we sat, looking back on her childhood, regretting not travelling to all the places we would have liked, not teaching her all the things that suddenly felt important in a way they hadn’t before. We felt cheated. There hadn’t been enough time to accomplish all of that. Our hearts were screaming out—we needed more time.
Then it hit me; we’d done a fine job of preparing Gina for the world. And we actually had taken her on many memorable vacations. We’d given much thought to what behavior we modeled for her and what experiences we exposed her to. And we had fun, lots of it. Did we really have much to regret about how we brought her up? But that was exactly the point: the everyday moments of parenting defined us. Gina and Lexi gave us purpose and joy, and those childrearing years were beginning to end. We never failed to savor them, and now Gina, and later Lexi, would be spending more moments away from us than with us.
I’ve been thinking back on that day ever since I received a card from my college pal, Mary. Her eldest is heading off to college, her middle child has just gotten a driver’s license and her youngest is working towards becoming an Eagle Scout. The weight of her son leaving home and her younger kids reaching milestones that mark their progress towards adulthood has touched a tender spot in her heart. She mentioned trying to see the “happy” in all this, knowing I’ve always stressed enjoying the moment since children grow so fast. I want to assure her that she can relax and have fun now because life will continue to be full and rich even after her children leave home. But I share that tender spot and know I couldn’t be convinced of that until I experienced it for myself.
On that day six years ago, before heading back inside to help Gina, Jay and I quit distracting ourselves with judging whether we’d done a good enough job parenting. Instead we showed compassion for one another as we began to navigate this next stage of our married life. And somewhere deep down I felt confident that our love for one another would carry us. It would expand to fit the everyday nooks and crannies that would be left vacant as our first born headed off to college.
Later that evening several friends, whose kids would also be leaving for school, came to sit with me at my kitchen table, supporting me, as I was the first. We laughed and cried, and again I experienced a tinge of that feeling, that sense that even while life would be different, it could be fulfilling in a new way.
And there was always that image of Gina’s face, illuminated with the promise of exciting endeavors beyond her childhood home, to remind me of exactly what we’d been preparing her for all along, and life was as it should be.
This post was originally published on Gayle’s blog, Life in the Turn Lane – http://lifeintheturnlane-gayle.blogspot.com/2011/07/when-first-kid-left-home.html