A Letter to Myself, as My Daughter Leaves for College
You’re doing it already: Wandering into her room when she’s not home, just to feel the essence of her. The clothes strewn on the floor, the unmade bed, they are signs that she was there and will be back. I expect that when she does leave, she’ll leave the room pristine. And that will be harder to look at than this messy mess, which is evidence that she is still here, and soon will return.
It will be hard, her not being there. After all, there is no one in creation who changed your life as much as she did. She’s your firstborn, the one you weren’t sure you had the patience, the selflessness, even the love, to mother. But she taught you that yes, you had all those things—and she taught you so much more.
She taught you what true, unfiltered love is. Remember when she’d cry, and you’d pick her up, and she’d stop? The smile on her face when you opened the door to her room in the morning, and the way she’d excitedly bounce in the crib in her footie PJs? Could someone really be that happy to see you? Yes, they could.
She taught you about the joy of being a little girl. When she was 7, you took her to get her ears pierced. Younger than that, you went for your first manipedi together. She talked you into buying the light-up Dora the Explorer shoes that you knew her father would scoff at. There was the pink phase, the rainbow phase, the purple phase, following again by a pink phase. Glitter was everywhere, for a time. You went prom dress shopping together, just the two of you, and the dress you picked but she didn’t want to try on wound up being the one that made her feel like a princess.
She taught you what empathy is. When your grandfather died, and she was not yet even 2 years old, she saw you crying and hugged you, crawling into your lap and crying along with you. One Mother’s Day, she hid dozens of little love notes around the house for you to find. It took weeks to discover them all, and each one left you feeling so blessed by her thoughtfulness. When you had a hard day at work, and she found you crying silently on the couch, she sidled up next to you and asked you to tell her what was wrong. You didn’t want to—at 18, wasn’t she still too young to be burdened with your problems? -- but she convinced you. She’s not a little kid anymore, and she wanted to help. You talked, and you felt better, and you got a glimpse of your future relationship.
She taught you how to be The Mom. She gets annoyed every time we ask her to walk the dog. Vacuum. Clean the bathroom. You keep asking – telling -- anyway. She can be quite bossy, and much prefers telling other people what to do than being told what to do. But you make sure she doesn’t become boss of the house by reminding her who is.
You’re going to miss her, even the things that you don’t expect to miss. She leaves her shoes in the hallway, just inches away from the closet where they belong. Her soaps and lotions are always left half-open on the bathroom sink. She has a laugh that brings life to the house—you’ll miss that. It’ll only be heard through a phone call now, or at least for a while, as she adjusts to life away from you. She might call every day at first, but that will peter out. Don’t take it personally – the less she needs you, the more she is adjusting to her new life. And that’s a good thing.
The person who is leaving the house is not the same one who will return. She’ll mature and won’t need you in the same way. She’ll become even more independent, and even more rebellious against your authority. So don’t try to control her; rather be there to guide her. Remember that she will make mistakes, because everyone does, and you know you did. But the foundation is there, and she will come to you when she needs you.
Because that’s the thing: You put the work in. You fostered this relationship with your daughter, not so that she could always be your little girl, but so that she could grow into being the smart, accomplished, independent woman you yearn for her to be.
Somehow, 18 years went by so fast. There were times when it felt like time would never pass, when you would not survive the exhaustion and frustration and monotony of years raising small children. But here you are now, part one of your job as a mother complete. She’s preparing to create her own world, and while it is sad to think that things at home will never be the same, there is joy in knowing that there are experiences that, as a mother, you have yet to have. Experiences that will bring you as much joy as all the others.
Watching her graduate college. Settle into a career she loves. Travel. Get married, maybe. Start a family, maybe. Long late night talks where she gives you a glimpse into the world that is hers alone.
It’s all changing, but don’t mourn the past. Savor the memories, and feel proud. Every day since the day she was born has been a step towards this moment, when she leaves you but knows that she can always come back.
There’s still a lot of mothering to come. Your job is not done. It has just moved into a new phase. And just like the ones before it, you’ll be overwhelmed and not sure what to do. You’ll do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing. Until one day you realize you did something right. And then another thing. And you’ll learn how to navigate this next chapter of motherhood.
Congratulate yourself. You deserve it. Find joy in the bittersweet sorrow of saying goodbye. And savor the joy of knowing she will be home again soon.