Teary Lesson as Daughter Heads off to College

According to the schedule for move-in day sent to us by the dean of freshmen, we have 6½ hours to park our car on campus, unload her belongings, cart them to her room, unpack what we can, attend two parent meetings, eat ice cream en masse with the assembled students and parents of the class of 2011 and kiss our daughter goodbye.

She's ready. We're ready. Still, …could someone please pass me the tissues?

I'm certain Katie's prepared for this transition. We've spent the better part of 18 years nurturing and supporting her in the idea that the world is hers to explore and exploit. We didn't set limits on her future but instead urged her to seek out a plan that was right for her.

It turns out that the right plan includes attending a school some eight hours away from home.

Perhaps more important as far as our transition goes, I stalwartly have avoided sappy and emotional Lifetime TV movies just so I can keep myself from indulging my maternal instincts to clutch my baby in my arms.

Now that the day is nearly here, I won't lie. A piece of me wishes I could turn back the clock — maybe even all the way back to the days when this first child was still a bundle of possibilities and I was waddling through my first pregnant summer.

OK, I'm not wistful for the waddling, but as far as the baby was concerned, the possibilities were romantic if not limitless.

Still, after all these years, I would have thought the eventuality of our "goodbye" would have occurred to me, but it turns out I imagined everything but the moment that will matter most.

I have reviewed the images in my mind time and again. I can see us loading and unloading the boxes and crates and bags into and out of my van. I can see myself trekking up two flights of stairs to the second floor of Katie's dorm, helping her assemble her bunk bed, suggesting a good place for the refrigerator and microwave.

I can see my husband and me sitting in the parent orientation session, nodding and smiling with all the other moms and dads.

I even can picture Katie turning away, walking through the front door of her dorm, joining with her hall mates and immersing herself in a college adventure that leads her to adulthood and a life of her own design.

The only part I can't imagine is how it will feel to drive away.

For months I have been telling myself this is only college. For heaven sake, going away to college is what people do — heck, it's what I did. It will create a separation between us, but a good one, a healthy distance away from her family in which Katie can continue to become the woman she's meant to be.

Leaving is the first step in every journey, after all. Even in my most nostalgic moments, I'm certain my daughter is as ready to begin this new journey as any young woman can be.

I guess what I never contemplated as I daydreamed about sending her off to college was that her departure would begin a new journey for me, too. It's a milestone in my life as a mother.

It's time to recognize that though my daughter still needs me, she needs something different than I have offered up to now — a style that reflects her emerging maturity and independence.

She needs my confidence in her ability to make her own decisions and carve her own path. She needs my interest, my enthusiasm, my support, but not my instruction or advice every step of the way. She needs more questions than answers, more thoughtful silence than brainstorming.

For all these years, she has sought out my help and I have given it freely in the belief that helping her was the way to be a good mom. I know the best help I can give her now is to stand back and watch as she flutters and flaps her way out of the nest we have shared for so long.

It's only college, but even if the changes in our relationship reflect our success in bringing her to this point, there's no denying we won't ever be the quite the same.

I expect from here on, when Katie comes home, her stays will be temporary and well-defined — visits to keep us connected, but not a return to a past we couldn't replicate or repeat.

There's no way to recapture the baby girl I held in my arms all those years ago or, for that matter, to recapture the young mom who held her. Her childhood is gone, a series of loving memories and stories and experiences that bind us in a past we'll always hold dear.

That's as it should be, of course.

Yet knowing it's time to start a new journey as mother and daughter doesn't make it any easier to take that first step.

So I don't imagine what it will feel like to drive away from the campus and leave her behind to make a life for herself. Instead, I only imagine that I'll hold both my husband's hand and a box of tissues, and together, we'll head home to a family that still needs everything we can offer, and more.

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