The Dorm Room Goodbye
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
On my daughter’s first day at day care, when she was not yet 2 years old, she joyfully went into the arms of one of her caregivers. I left her there, a deep sigh in my chest but happy that she had transitioned so easily.
Day two was not as simple. As I tried to hand her off, she turned to me with panic in her eyes. Tears started to fall. She held onto my neck as I handed her over.
“Call us in 20 minutes. She’ll be fine, I promise.”
I called. She was fine. I was not. Leaving is hard.
The art of leaving is something you learn again and again as a parent. Leaving them with the grandparents for the first time, with a new babysitter. Leaving them as they walk alone into middle school. Leaving them as they step onto a subway train for the first time by themselves. Onto an airplane.
Each time I’m left with a hollowness that makes me feel flat, two-dimensional. I’m missing something crucial to my identity. It is the thing that makes me a mother, and it is moving away from me.
This week I stood in my daughter’s college dorm room, watching the barren cinderblock walls and plastic mattress transform into her pink-everywhere, pillow-softened home for the next eight months. I walked out of her room, out of the dorm, to the car, and had that same feeling as when I first left her at day care.
Is this the right choice? Will she feel sad? Will she miss me? Did I forget to do something? Will she be okay? Will I be okay?
I breathed deeply. Leaving a teenager at her college dorm is not the same as leaving a toddler at day care. She has developed tools for navigating life on her own. She can ask for help if she needs it. And at 18, separating from me is exactly what she is supposed to be doing. College is the next step in her life journey. She will probably feel sad, and scared, and insecure, but managing those emotions is part of her maturation.
She will be okay. But will I?
I wake in the middle of the night, a sadness filling my chest. What is it? Yes, I miss her. But it’s deeper than that.
Seeking comfort, I roll over to hug my husband, and I understand why my dorm room goodbye was so hard: Disconnect. I fear being disconnected from her. If I’m not connected to my child’s emotional energy, how will I know how to mother her?
Most days, for most of her life, I knew from the way she said “good morning” exactly what child I was dealing with. Stressed out, exhausted, happy, excited – I calibrated to match her energy. I can’t say I always responded perfectly, but I had the info. Now she is in her dorm room. I am staring at the ceiling. And I fear the disconnect.
The next day, we meet one last time for breakfast before finally putting hundreds of miles between us. I ask her how she is managing the transition to dorm life. She snaps curtly at me. It had only been two days, and she didn’t know yet. My tears, held at bay until now, flow. If she didn’t know how she felt and what she needed, how was I to know?
She reached her hand across the table.
Why are you crying?
I’m just really going to miss you.
I’m going to miss you too, you know.
I compose myself. She gives me a hug. I fall apart again, grateful for this moment of connection but fearing what comes next. What is a relationship with an adult child, and how am I supposed to act? I recall a text I received from my sister-in-law earlier in the week. She sympathized with how hard this goodbye is but reassured me that I should not fear the next chapter.
“This journey will bring you both closer, but it will be a different kind of closeness than you’ve had,” she wrote. “It’s actually a beautiful thing.”
Her wisdom made me think of the very beginning of my relationship with my daughter. She was a colicky newborn, I wasn’t producing enough milk, and her father did a better job of getting her to settle down. After nine months of being completely connected, I felt disconnected from her. I couldn’t feed her, I couldn’t soothe her, and I felt like a failure as a new mom.
But over time, we got to know each other. I learned how to take care of her, and she learned how to trust me. Today, she’s no longer the toddler with her arms gripped around my neck, but I like to think she knows I am the mother with my heart wrapped around hers.
Today after breakfast, and the tears, and the hugs, we said a final goodbye on the street corner outside her dorm. I felt her summoning her own strength to be the one to walk away from us and into a new world. I watched her cross the street. She did not look back. But I know she knew – I was there, watching until I couldn’t see her anymore.