Kids College-Bound? Welcome to Lonely
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s no need for the empty nest to feel like a full tomb.
By Catherine Lloyd Burns
I cared for my daughter like I cared for most men I’ve loved. I served. My capacity for love was bottomless. I was a reservoir of kindness, stocked with unimaginable patience. My giving was spontaneous and effortless, a pleasure until I couldn’t do it another second and I wanted them to make their own goddamn sandwiches and leave me the fuck alone.
Having a child leave for college should be the best-case scenario for someone like me. Because theoretically, away at college, my daughter would make her own goddamn sandwich while I continued to love her. But about a month before she was going to leave, I realized I should be worried.
My father died when I was 9, so grief is no stranger. My daughter’s absence was probably going to stir things up. When my mother died, I was overcome by a familiar pulling, deep inside. Like stitches being yanked before the wound had healed. My sense of her loss manifested itself as a continuous dull pain. Now, five years after her death, my daughter was going too.
When she began organizing her luggage, she said, “This time I’m packing for life.” I stood in her doorway somewhat aghast, thinking about the previous year — the year I spent like a depressed person with early onset Alzheimer’s. Never getting anything done, looking for my glasses for hours on end and, when I found them, realizing I’d lost my coffee. Barely getting dressed. What if this despair and incompetence, this frightening forgetfulness, this period of personal and professional misery were, in fact, my preparation?
Most of my friends lost at least one kid to college this week. We checked in, sent texts with crying-face emojis. One friend said … “I keep thinking the best years of my life are over.”
When the day arrived, my husband and I loaded the car. We followed her to check in, saw her room. I hung up clothes, he put the Ikea lamp together, we ate lunch in her dining hall and then we drove away.
At exit 17, I saw a sign for a yarn warehouse. I made him pull over. I bought yarn for a blanket. For her. It’ll take a long time. Especially when you consider the fact that it took me five years to knit my small dog, who has 4-inch legs, a sleeveless sweater. But how long it takes to knit this blanket isn’t the point. The point is to be with her while she begins her life, becomes her own person, separates from me.
How can a mother separate from the child who grew inside her, fed off her? I shared my womb with her. I birthed her and nursed her and took intimate care of her. My love for her is cellular; it’s visceral. Plus, I really like her a lot.
The first couple of days she was gone we stayed in Massachusetts with her grandparents and I knit. I knit in the car. I knit waiting on line for the movies. I knit in the restaurant. I thought about her as I knit, and I kept knitting knowing that she was not thinking about me. Her job was to be present in her new life; she was doing her job. I was knitting. And thinking about her.
I’m home now. It is too quiet. Her bags and her shoes and her dishes are not strewn everywhere. The house feels so unbearably empty. And I wake up excited. I wake up early. I jump out of bed, actually. I don’t have to cook a vegan dinner. I don’t have to make sure there is food she likes in the fridge. I don’t have to stop writing before she comes home so I can hear her hilarious impersonations of people, discuss her anxieties, get the latest on her friends, help her with homework and organization, go shopping, plan a doctor’s visit, massage her shoulders, feel a bump on the back of her neck that might be cancer or a bug bite or just tension, examine a rash on her elbow, binge-watch Jane the Virgin with her, make her a cup of Earl Grey tea with oat milk, an ice cube and a large spoonful of honey.
Like Frankie in The Member of the Wedding, I spent my life looking for a we I could belong to. Then I found it, with her. She and I are the we of me. My mother’s we was never me; it was her job. I knew she was happiest at work. She said to me, for as long as I can remember, “Do not live through your children. Your children grow up and leave you. You’d better have something else to live for.”
Most of my friends lost at least one kid to college this week. We checked in, sent texts with crying-face emojis. One friend said on the phone, “I keep thinking the best years of my life are over.” I don’t feel this way. But I think I understand what she meant: We are no longer the center of our kids’ lives.
Once, we prioritized the same thing — each other. That singularity of purpose, that’s over. My daughter is, and will always be, the sweetest, creamiest center I know. But I’m on the outside now, looking in. She adores me, I know she does. And her real journey, her life, has begun. The cord is cut and I’m at home, stupidly trying to fashion a new one out of yarn that will hopefully turn into a blanket that will remain on the edge of her bed, reminding her that she is loved.
- Catherine Lloyd Burns, OZY Author Contact Catherine Lloyd Burns