How to turn your heart inside out in one easy step

Send your first born child to college. 

Seriously. It turns out that's all it takes to turn my heart completely inside out and throw me into sobs of primal transitional grief. (Son, if you’re reading this, it’s not your fault. This is what happens to moms who love their children.)

He was ready. He was 19 years old. I, at 45 on the other hand, was not ready for this. Nor was I ready for a piece of my heart to travel with him halfway across the country and stay with him there in another state. I was certainly not prepared for the vivid slide show that ran through my head on the ride home after dropping him off at said college, which began with still black and white images of his birth and progressed through each year of his life with increasingly vivid color, only to re-live in the end the most recent photo I took of him, a young man, waving goodbye to me over his shoulder as he literally walked down the path into the new world of college and life on his own. This slide show was so real, so joyfully gut-wrenching, I have never felt anything like it before. I guess it was my brain grieving a loss I didn't know how to incur.

I thought I had been handling this whole thing pretty well. Getting him all set up to have everything he would need to be reasonably comfortable in his dorm room. Helping plan the family road trip through several national parks on the way to drop him and all his precious cargo at the college. Sewing him a quilt from all the t-shirts and sports jerseys he had worn over the years. Helping him pack. Some significant tears came during the process and I considered them par for the course.

Because I cry. With anger, frustration, sadness, extreme joy, pride, love, disappointment, regret, pain, elation, fear, nostalgia, empathy, happiness...pretty much all the big feels. My eyes cannot contain these emotions and they run over like leaky faucets or geysers depending on the situation. It's part of who I am. And yet, I did not expect the gut wrenching sobs that overcame me the first time I was alone in our quiet house after he moved away. I was not in control of my body. The emotion was bigger than I knew possible. It was as if part of my being was leaving my body. Permanently. Against my will. And all the little regrets of motherhood were needling me in my tender places. I should have_____, shouldn't have_______, could have______, meant to_______, wanted to___________, wished I could have_____. All rose to the surface in little accusations of regret, failure and inadequacy. I tried to sweep them aside knowing I have done the best I could all along. Knowing that modern motherhood is an impossible task. That I should be gentle with myself knowing that I have been the best mother to him that I possibly could be at any given moment, including all the mistakes. But the ache was so deep, so all-consuming. It was truly overwhelming.

I had spoken to some friends in the spring before his high school graduation who said things to me like, "I cried all the way home on the plane." Or, "You'll get through it." Accompanied by looks of deep empathetic grief and longing. But it turns out that this separation is another on of those things that everyone experiences in their own unique way.   I don't want to make it sound like it was unbearable to send my boy to college. (But it was not the hallmark movie experience I had been conditioned to expect…) I'm incredibly proud of him for venturing out in to the world much farther than I ever did at his age. I want my boys to thrive out in the world. I want them to go away and find themselves and come home and tell me about their adventures. But the enormity of the emotions did surprise me. A friend of mine who has two adult children tried to tell me. She told me of her overwhelming  waves of sadness and tears that followed when her firstborn left home for college. I filed it away under the "thanks for the warning, but I'm doing this my way" file in my head. I owe her a thank you letter. Without her words, I might have thought I was having a nervous breakdown. Which in a way, maybe I was. A breakdown of a relationship that has to change and grow. A breaking away from how I used to relate to him. Being ripped  away from how often I get to hug him, how often I get the privilege to hear the  music that flows through him like blood flows through the rest of us. The loss is almost indescribable. Our family is different now. Our middle son is now the oldest kid in the house. Our youngest will always be so. And where there were 5 places at the table there are now 4. Food lasts longer. It is quieter. The dog was even confused for the first few weeks. She kept wandering around the house trying to find him when we were all home...all except him. 

Thinking back to my own time away from home in college, I wonder if I would have been less homesick if I had had FaceTime on a cell phone like he does. I wonder if that digital connection has allowed my son to venture farther out into the world, knowing we are only a touchscreen away. It has definitely made it easier for me being able to see the work he is doing, the movies he creates, the photos he shares. It connects him with his brothers in a way that my brother and I never could be while I was away at college and he at home in high school. And those relationships are so precious. It allows me to measure time by how much longer his hair is than last I saw his face on the tiny screen of my phone. It allows me to grieve and move forward while staying connected. To stay present for my two sons who are still at home. And it allows them to stay connected with their big brother. 

The thing is, even with the technology, I still miss him like crazy. The next spring/holiday/Christmas break can't come fast enough. I try not to bug him too much. But he’s so fun to chat with and I am pleased to say that so far his college experience is really positive, and I love hearing about all his cool assignments and adventures. He is growing and learning and doing all the things a parent can hope for...and probably some things I don’t need to hear about. And I’m okay with that. I am so blessed to have my three boys. Maybe by the time the third one leaves for college, I’ll have a better idea of how to handle it. Maybe. But fair warning, boys...I’ll still cry.

And it will still all be okay.