Everything ached. I could identify individual vertebrae in my back. My shoulders felt like coiled ropes; my upper back pled for mercy. My feet were swollen and my jaw popped and cracked.
And all I’d done the day before was sit in a car for four hours, putting mile after mile between me and my college freshman.
Was this pain a tightening, or a release? Was it caused by the stress of her being so far away from her, causing me to clench everything, or from finally releasing muscles that had been held taut for too long?
As my body sank into the bed, I knew it was the latter. So much of my energy had been put into seeing this child to the finish line: safely and securely on the college path.
And what a journey it has been. Her sophomore year of high school, when she took on too many extracurriculars and was overwhelmed by one class in particular, and we feared that at 15 she had hit a wall that she lacked the reserves to recover from. But then came COVID, and away went her exhausting commute, too-long days, and fear over her grades as everything was now pass-fail. Other than the existential drama of a pandemic, it was almost a relief.
But then oh, the pandemic. A Sweet 16 spent at her grandparents’ house instead of in Italy as planned, the absence of her dearest friends made more difficult when dinner ran late and her younger cousins melted down. Junior year of high school was spent in her bedroom, doing physics experiments via Zoom and square dancing ridiculously by herself instead of in the gym where it would have been a farce to enjoy with her friends.
COVID tests, COVID shots, COVID scares. It made things like the SAT, college essays, and college applications, seem like a scam. After a year spent in her bedroom, how could we expect her to waste her summer doing SAT prep – in her bedroom? Why write college essays before the rigors of senior year set in when she’d rather, strike that—needed to, be on the beach with the friends she had been deprived of for so long?
Oh, the arguments. College applications, SAT prep classes, were a capitalist scam meant to make money for institutions that don’t need any more of it, at the expense of people who do need it. (Her father was out of work at the time, so this one stung.) Would we even be able to afford to send her to a top college anyway? (Ouch.) And she was sick and tired of the competitiveness that fueled college admissions, was sick and tired of the peer pressure that came with grades and acceptances and career goals. In a world where people shoot up classrooms and adults do nothing, where polar ice caps are melting and adults do nothing, where a rogue virus can upend your life without warning, what was the point to any of it?
You are right, we said. But your rebelling against the status quo is only going to result in your living here with us forever. Your one-person protest against the system will not change anything. Go get an education, and then you can work to change the system.
And so she took the SAT, did the college applications. I sat with her on New Year’s Eve, and we toasted not just the ball drop but her hitting “send” on one of her last applications, right at the deadline.
Then there was the waiting. Weeks, months of waiting. Acceptances came, and then one stinging waitlist offer from the only Ivy she applied to. Why did I work so hard at such a competitive high school if I’m going to go to a college any kid can get into? Yikes. I realized the competitiveness she complained of was rooted in her own expectations of herself, and her fears over what she could achieve had less to do with peer pressure and more to do with her belief in who she was. If she wasn’t the overachiever who mastered every challenge, who was she? She spiraled, and I strove to keep her spirits, and her self-esteem, lifted.
We toured colleges. She picked a great one, the right one, I believe. And just when I was about to relax, just when I thought I’d reached a teen parenting finishing line, came the boyfriend. And everything that comes with being a teenager in love: the outrage over boundaries and curfews, the lack of common sense when it came to questions of the heart, my staring-at-the-ceiling-at-3-am fears over a relationship that was moving faster than I was ready for.
But over time, I adjusted into what I now see is the new role of parenting an almost-adult. Keeping the guardrails in place, while also removing them slowly. Moving from providing direction to asking if she needs my advice before offering it. Letting her make her own choices, aware that those could lead to her own mistakes. And that mistakes are inevitable, and I have to let her have those risks and rewards.
Summer came to an end. We had numerous goodbye dinners. She packed up her room. We packed up the car. We unpacked everything into her new temporary home. And then on a street corner, we said goodbye. I cried a bit, but less than I had in the leadup to this monumental day. Somehow the actual parting was easier than the anticipation of it, likely because not only was she ready, but I was too.
And then I lay in bed the next day, feeling my every muscle, tendon, joint release.
“I think I have a Mom hangover,” I told my husband. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks.”
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” he said, and I knew he was right. I look at my 15-year-old son and am grateful for a short reprieve, a year before we have to go full force into his college journey. But I realize I’m smarter about it and will be less shellshocked by a process that I now know will be daunting, infuriating, confusing, but in the end, successful.
“What are you going to do with the free time you have now?” someone asked me. Parenting one child is surprisingly less work than one, if for no other reason than there are fewer logistics, and no worries over “where is she and what time will she be home?”
That is the next question – what to do next. But a week later I am still nursing this hangover, still detoxing from the effort of launching a teen into the world. What’s next? For now, more sleep, more hydration, more kindness to myself. That feels like the right place to start.