Mothers of high school seniors have their own reasons for stressing over college applications. While everyone hopes their child will get into the college of their choice, that first acceptance letter comes with the hard and cold reality that their baby is going to leave.
It isn't a question of not wanting them to grow up, or even worrying whether or not they are ready. It is that rite of passage of knowing they really don't need you anymore, and that they will be just fine.
My daughter is almost 18 and will be majoring in musical theatre. Her father has been schlepping her from one major city to the next and sitting patiently during her three hour auditions. This time though, he agreed to meet her in Pittsburgh and she had to fly alone to meet him there. I was completely confident she would be fine, but how would I be?
We arrived at the airport, and she reached in the backseat and grabbed her bags. Before I had retrieved my cell phone and my purse, she had already taken long strides towards the terminal. “Wait for me,” I wanted to call out, but didn't. Instead, I remembered the little girl who stood patiently beside me, waiting to take my hand before we moved towards the street.
I met her inside the terminal as she entered her code and reached for her ticket. We went for a quick juice at the snack bar, and chatted away the remaining minutes before she entered the security check. The clerk at the desk had refused to allow me to join her past security so I stood at the ropes as she made her way through.
There was not much to say at that point, so I chatted with another woman who was traveling with her own daughter, already graduated from college. “It's the most underrated time in a woman's life,” she said. “No one talks about what a woman goes through.”
Everyone has heard of empty nest syndrome, but it is more than just the fact the child is leaving. It is a time of redefining one's place on earth. Who am I, if I am no longer a mommy? Am I still important to the world?
My daughter rounded the ropes and laughed at the fact that I was still there. I told her, “I am pretending you need me to be here. After all, they could cancel the plane.” She laughed, and reached across the ropes to give me a hug.
Beginning with the birth of a child, the first thing a woman learns is that her life is no longer her own. She loses sleep, she wipes stuffy noses, changes diapers, cleans vomit. It is not a job for the squeamish, and yet it is a job done with tenderness and love. Mothers sacrifice their lives willingly. But when that day comes when a child says, “Here is your life back, mom. I don't need it anymore,” it is a harsh blow indeed.
As my daughter passed through security and out of my sight, I decided to sit and wait until the plane took off. It was raining hard and we soon found that her flight was delayed and hadn't even left its state of origin. I texted her, “The rain in Maine has mainly delayed the plane.”
She texted back, “I love you so much.”
I sat in the terminal thinking of how she had recently gotten her license, and what an adjustment that had been. I went from driving her all over to sitting and waiting for her to come home. I worried that she had an accident if she was 10 minutes late, and I was stunned to find evidence in her car that she had gone to the mall by herself.
But not only was I struggling with my daughter's independence, I was searching to find my own. Not only was she on her first solo flight, after more than 30 years of parenting, so was I.
I sat in the La Guardia terminal until the plane was halfway to Pittsburgh. I called my oldest daughter now living in California and pouted, “My babies have all flown away.”
She laughed and said, “Move here.” It is up for discussion.
I finally left the airport, and as I was driving home, I began to cry. But by then the tears were not of sadness. They were of wonder and pride. My littlest girl, the one who so happily had clung to her mother's apron strings long after her sister would have cut them, had gottten on a plane and flown to Pittsburg. She has good grades and a lot of talent, and she is on the first leg of her journey towards adulthood. It was easy to put my feelings aside one more time, because I couldn't have been more proud.