FEED YOUR KIDS COFFEE AND CIGARETTES SO THEY STAY SMALL
…AND OTHER THOUGHTS ON COLLEGE DROP-OFF
Like countless of others before me, beside me and still yet to come, I just returned from dropping my eldest child off for freshman year at college, 3000 miles from home.
Many beautiful reflections have been written about this milestone moment by far better reflectors than I, so much so that it would be hard to share something completely new. But what I can share is a view that is authentic and true and speaks to the profound place of vulnerability that almost anyone with a beating heart finds themselves at this juncture of time.
I often rub up against people who veer toward the unemotional and cold, more often than I would like, because I have several such people in my extended family. As you can imagine, they are not my favorites. When I am around them, my sentimentality feels “extra.” I feel like they see me as silly and overwrought. And yet I wonder, how do you know you’re alive unless you love someone so much it hurts? Never has this question dug deeper for me than it does now.
The Pandemic Year That Made Parting a Sweeter Sorrow
I should share at the outset that we had my college-bound daughter home for an unanticipated Gap Year, thanks to our steadfast friend, the pandemic. The bonus year started out rocky with all of us (globally) acting out our collective frustrations within the four walls of our home.
But, somehow, and thankfully so, we segued into a rather glorious purgatory. My daughter’s high school was extremely demanding, such that she regularly had to opt out of family gatherings and weekend afternoons at the beach or on a road trip, all on account of crushing amounts of schoolwork.
To have her home with considerably fewer demands (and sometimes no demands) on her time was an incredible gift. For the first time probably since pre-school, she and I had the time to really know one another. For me, it was like having a vibrant, fun, curious houseguest for the year. We talked, we shopped, we cooked, we played the best tennis of our lives.
And, as many will concur, there is no better sleep than the one that comes when all your kids are home tucked away in their childhood bedrooms. There is no better salve to a pandemic than the ability to control the very air your kids breathe (at our house, we have cornered the market on air purifiers), the food they eat and the company they keep (me, as was the case during the long days of quarantine).
All of this warm, fuzzy familial isolation made the inevitability of having to deposit my first born clear across the country all the more painful.
In the weeks leading up to our departure, I spend some time being resentful of how much our society obsesses over the idea of kids leaving the nest after high school. Americans clench hard on the “leaving home” idea; it grows out of our fixation on sending our littles to sleep away camp, beginning, for some, at a startlingly young age.
A psychology professor I once knew said that this is consistent with our individualistic culture. As a contrast, in Florentine society, he said, you are born in Florence, you go to college in Florence and then you get a job, get married and live out your days in Florence. Is there anything really wrong with that? I ask myself. Are we to assume that all Florentines are stunted? I fume but begin to prepare for the cross-country move with the tactical flourish of an army general.
Duration of actual drop-off: 96 hours, including travel time.
On the flight over, my daughter and I do some “soiling of the nest.” I bitch at her over something trivial, and she reciprocates in kind. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, “soiling of the nest” is a phenomenon by which a kid who is about to leave home exhibits signs of being fed up with family and home. When the nest and the people who live in it become less appealing, the kid works up the chops to actually fly. In our case, I, too, was mustering up the courage to let her go.
At one point, though, my daughter sweetly asks me to open her Sabra Hummus Pack, and I jump at the opportunity. Let’s turn around and go home, I want to say.
We arrive on the East Coast, and I am immediately struck by the foreignness of it. It’s humid AF. People speak in a vernacular that is often spoofed on SNL. I battle the stereotypes in my head—East Coasters are cold and uptight by nature, their food is heavy and lacking in nutrients (lobster rolls, cheese steaks, etc.). I think about my parents who made a life 10,000 miles from their home and decide that their sense of adventure and capacity for risk has skipped a generation.
To calm myself in this foreign city, I appeal to every member of the Hindu pantheon (we have a god for everything). I listen to mantras on Spotify. I do several “Headspaces” and “Calms.” I breathe in through the nose—hold for three seconds—out through the mouth (or was it meant to be in through the mouth out through the nose?). I feel dizzy from all the oxygen intake.
It is thrilling to be on the college campus, and there are good chunks of time where I exhibit extreme lucidity and competence. My daughter’s dorm looks like Hogwarts. There is a little sign that says “Established 1894,” and I quickly realize that not much has been updated since. I shlep boxes up three flights of stairs (no elevators), I get on my hands and knees and scrub her wood floor, I plug in her air purifier.
Back at our hotel for a break, I begin to cry, and my family becomes angry with me for ruining our last lunch together. I think about peeling off and taking a walk but then I realize that we are 60 floors up (damn you, East Coast and your vertical way of life!), and I am also famished. A turkey sandwich and a Diet Coke beckon, so I join them and continue to cry. My face is red and squished, as if it was placed in a vice. Both my family and the waitress are discomforted by my presence.
We say our goodbyes, and I fly home. In the ensuing days, I find it hard to FaceTime my daughter because I engage in Kabuki Theater when I look at her face, attempting to interpret her every look and gesture. I opt instead to send texts, both blackmaily and nuisancey in nature—if you love me, you will take the fafillion vitamins I packed for you. This followed by—check to see if there is mold in your dorm room vents (as if she is a mold specialist). I avoid going into her empty bedroom at home at all costs.
Three Ideas—Affliction, Imprinting and Additive Love
There is a word in the Urdu language—takleef. It is defined as affliction or pain. For better or worse, I have lived my role as a mother as chief eliminator of takleef. Where are you feeling hurt? How can I make it go away? Never mind, I will figure out where you are hurt and how to make it go away. I am plagued by the question of how I will perform this function from so far away, when I will only know if there is takleef if my daughter chooses to tell me. What happens to me as a mother—indeed as a human—when I am no longer needed in this role?
Other questions gnaw away at my innards. Was my daughter’s childhood as happy as it possibly could have been? Did my anxiety crush her? Did I teach her every possible thing? Did we use our time together wisely? I have been exploring the idea of imprinting in the context of all of this. The idea, extrapolated from the animal kingdom, is that kids imprint on their parents at birth. They get their very identity as a species from them, and it lasts for life. I find this comforting—lasts for life.
And, finally, I am holding tight to the idea that love is additive—that by letting a child out in the world I am not risking losing her but, instead, increasing the chances that all our familial love will grow, that as she increases her circle—with friends and ultimately a spouse/partner and a family of her own—that our circle of love will expand. This is the idea that brings the most joy.
So Now What..
I am in new territory, friends. At times, it is unbearable. At times, it feels OK.
The good news is that I have a muse. He is John Mayer. I rediscovered a beautiful song of his, an oldie but goodie, Gravity. The final lines of the song go:
Just keep me where the light is
Come on keep me where the light is
Come on keep me where, keep me where the light is…
I feel gently lulled by John and his lyrics because deep down I know everything I am feeling is a reflection of a deep and indelible love writ large…the love of a mother. And I feel privileged to feel a love so deep that it hurts. These days, this is how I know I am alive.