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Child Leaving for College Is Like Labor All Over Again


It happened again. I wake with my sheets wound round me, legs akimbo, pulse spazzy. I’m fresh from a fight with something I know I can’t beat. It’s 4 a.m. and everyone else in the family is asleep. Our bedrooms are close, and through thin walls, I hear my kids not stirring. Not flopping around on creaky springs. Not doing battle as I am.

Starshine Roshell

Downstairs, our living quarters amble generously through wide-open rooms, but upstairs our three small bedrooms are smooshed side by side by side like hideaway nests. Perched above the bustling world with its snapping predators, careless traffic, and vexing noise, the cozy tree house where we slumber in proximity is quiet and still. Warm and laundry-scented. Closely knit.

For literally thousands of mornings, I’ve opened my eyes to the sunlit, soul-settling certainty that the people who matter most to me are within earshot of a groggy-but-grateful “G’ morney!” Even when I wake from predawn nightmares, their collective presence offers deep and immediate comfort. It’s an absolute: As sure as the sun will rise, my boys are near me, curled up, tucked in, at ease and at peace.

But that’s about to change. My son Stone, the subject of my very first column 16 years ago, leaves for college across the country in two weeks. All summer, friends have been checking in. “Soooo … are you okay?” Yeah! “Freaking out?” Naw, I’m good! Exciting times! So stoked for him! All under control! Let’s do this!

As my punctuation divulges, though, I’m not okay. I’m freaking out. Honestly, it feels like giving birth again — only I’m pushing for three months. My child is being physically removed from me. To sleep on the other side of our tumultuous nation. Where I won’t know if he’s sleeping peacefully. Or if he’s hungry. Or lonely.

To cope, I’m shopping — obsessively collecting tiny versions of anything he might ever need in life: itty-bitty stain spray, Cortaid stick, Kind bars, 1.5-oz. sunscreen, Emergen-C packets, pocket umbrella, mini-stapler. He’s horrified, of course.

But I think maybe if I send enough “home” along with him — the caregiving, owie-fixing, shiver-preventing, frustration-banishing parts of home — then this separation won’t feel so violent to me. If I can’t know that he’s safe in his nest next door, then I want — no, I need — to know that he’s at home in the great big world. With, you know, travel-size provisions.

You should have seen his face when I brought home the teensy-weensy sewing kit. “I mean … Mom,” he started, eager to discourage me without utterly unhinging me; it’s a delicate line just now. “I don’t even know how to sew.”

I meant to teach him how. I thought there’d be time. There isn’t. There were movies I was sure we’d watch together one day. I can see now we won’t.

When Stone was a baby and we spent hour after hour after hour after hour after hour staring at each other on the sofa … just making exhausted faces and exasperated sounds at one another … waiting ’til it was time to eat again … or nap again … or cry again (first him, then me; we took turns), people said, “Enjoy it! It goes by so fast.” And I thought hateful things about them, wondering why they’d waste precious energy saying something so stupid when they could say something useful like, “Please can I hold your child for 9 to 11 minutes so you can go bathe the sad sack that used to be your body?”

But look at that: Time’s up. Off he’ll go, begrudgingly lugging a shoebox stuffed with trinkets and tinctures of home, while I sit trying to remember my Lamaze breathing and hoping it’ll do more good this time around.

Until then, I’ll probably keep startling awake in the dark again and again, in some subconscious preparation for mornings to come — when a croaked “G’ morney” will fall on two ears fewer, in a tree house with one empty nest.

Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.

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