One minute they’re born, and a few minutes later you’re waving goodbye.
I remember sobbing over my five-day-old son, thinking of the day that he would leave me and go away to college.
And then, one day, he did.
They say that children provide a yardstick for our lives, but they don’t tell you how quickly the time telescopes between birth and the day you wave goodbye outside your child’s freshman dorm.
As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Her two-minute video, The Years are Short, is a poignant reminder of how we need to savor the little moments with our children.
I kept the notes I took before newborn Taylor’s first well-baby checkup. With pages of single-spaced questions carefully hand-written on a yellow pad, I figured it must have been a two- or three-month checkup.
It was three days. Three days.
How could I possible have had so many questions about someone who’d only been on Earth for 72 hours? And yet, anyone who has ever parented a newborn knows the feeling. How can a tiny human who weighs barely seven or eight pounds control every minute of your day, every fiber of your being?
And yet, they do. And day by day, life goes on. You adjust to the baby, and the baby adjusts to you. You learn to keep the cat out of the bassinet, and the cat learns that she can still sit in your lap, even when you’re holding a baby.
When we handed newborn Taylor to my sister, she burst into tears, crying “I hate being intimidated by someone who’s 20 minutes old!” That story has become family lore, but my sister admits that her love for this child — my son, her nephew — convinced her that she could become a mother.
My son is now 32 years old, an accomplished and independent adult, living on his own in Montana, far from our home in Silicon Valley. And yet, in barely a blink, I can conjure that heartbreaking moment when I understood — truly felt it, in my heart— that my baby would one day grow up and leave me.
Right now, my Facebook page is filled with proud, tearful, and stoic posts from friends dropping their freshmen off at college. It is a rite of passage, not one I wanted to make so many years ago, but one we know is coming, if you’ve raised a healthy, independent young adult.
Some kids may choose to stay closer to home, and that’s okay too. Even back at home is fine, if you’ve established some family ground rules. My daughter recently spent some time with us after she landed her dream job and then the company relocated to San Francisco. We enjoyed the adult version of Brittany, someone who cooked and cleaned, squeezed the family cat, and happily joined me for a glass of wine and some trashy TV.
So what are we parents to do, when the big day comes?
Don’t hang around too long, making the bed, stacking clothes in the tiny closet, or chatting up the new roommate’s parents. Make your goodbyes quick, it will be easier on you both, and you’ll be less likely to hear how embarrassing you were in front of the cute guy next door.
Enjoy your kids while they’re under your roof. Yes, they leave wet towels on the floor, use up all the hot water, eat all the leftovers, drink all the milk, forget to put gas in the car, play their music too loud, and hog the TV. But you’ll miss all of it, I promise (well, except for making school lunches. You won’t miss that).
When my own kids left for college, I sent them short emails, describing in boring detail what was going on at home: “We bought new litter for Buster, I made a dental hygiene appointment, Trader Joe’s is out of the bread we like, the car is making a funny noise and your stepdad thinks it’s the starter motor.”
Why? Because I wanted them to understand that they were in a new place, having new experiences, while our same old, boring life continued on, in secure fashion, at home. Then they could tell me a funny story about something they saw on the Quad, what happened at the dorm meeting, or how they made friends with a new girl in their comp sci class.
It’s our role, as parents, to remain our children’s rock, especially as they venture into new waters. And what are rocks? Solid, dull, immovable, that’s what. We are not pebbles in a stream, no sirree, we are the boulders that the water flows around, comfortable, secure, and serene.
So, wave goodbye, but make it quick! Make sure your kids don’t see the tears, at least not until you’re back on the highway.
And Mom and Dad, pat yourselves on the back for a job well done. Launching a child into the world is scary, but it means you’ve done your job.
You’ve been a parent.