She is not the same girl my husband and I left on the college quad back in August when we moved our daughter into her freshman dorm room.
She's not even the same girl I put on a plane a month ago after a long weekend at home.
In fact, what strikes me most as Katie emerges from the arrival gate at the airport for the holiday break is that she's not a girl anymore.
A semester away from home has worked its magic, returning to me a self-possessed, self-assured young woman.
I'm not going to lie. In August, the idea that my eldest daughter would come this far seemed unlikely at best. Not that I doubted her potential – in fact, I spent hours on the phone reminding her that her parents believed unequivocally that she would adjust to college life.
She may have missed some of those pep talks, though, because she was too busy bawling her eyes out, telling me she wanted to come home.
At first, I listened sympathetically and propped her up emotionally as I reminded her that it takes time to make friends and feel comfortable. I encouraged her to be patient; eventually she would grow to love her new school and her life as a college student.
Ultimately, Katie elevated homesickness into a daily dose of whining and complaining. She told me repeatedly how much she missed me, and I tried to do the same. But let's face it, it's hard to miss someone who won't leave you alone long enough to notice she's not on the phone.
Eventually I was forced to deliver the mother of all motherhood lectures, titled "Do You Have Any Idea How Lucky You Are?" Thematically, it's a combination of "Be careful what you wish for; you may get it" and "There are starving children in Third World countries who would give anything to be in your shoes." It's the perfect mix of accountability and guilt.
That, and the passing of time, seemed to do the trick.
Gradually, Katie's long-distance laments became less frequent and blessedly less emotional. We managed to have entire conversations without her reminding me of the number of weeks, days, hours and minutes until she would return to the roost.
As first semester adjustments go, Katie's probably was a textbook case. For weeks she put a proverbial toe in the water of college life, testing the temperature for the right moment to dive into activities and clubs. As her confidence grew, so did her desire to branch out. Just a few weeks ago, she let me know she had joined an Ultimate Frisbee team. That's when I knew her transformation was well under way.
She was inundated with schoolwork. She even got too busy to call. She got so good at being away at college that I realize she's simply not the same girl we packed up last summer.
Then again, Katie's not the only one who spent a semester adjusting to college life. In many ways, I'm probably not the same mom who waved goodbye across the quad and then settled in for an eight-hour crying jag back home. (We don't have to mention those tears to my college freshman, by the way.)
I have spent the semester realizing that Katie's departure marks a new phase for me, too — the phase in which I help my children leave me. I guess if Katie and I learned anything this semester, it's that entering a new phase of life is harder than it looks.
It's a young woman, not a girl, who walks confidently through the airport security doors and into the waiting arms of her mom. Katie hugs me so tightly she nearly knocks me over — it's as if she's making up for lost hugs on late nights when the reassurance of a parent was nowhere to be found.
We walk arm in arm to the baggage area. Time and tears melt away as we re-connect in the unspoken rhythm of mother and daughter.
I decide in this moment she's still my girl after all … but who knows what second semester will bring?