I finally got my oldest child off to college. He lives hours away from home now. It’s been a process. Depending on how you I calculate it the process began 18 years ago when I started talking to my growing belly, taking prenatal vitamins and playing music for my unborn child, reading and talking incessantly to him as a baby, or the process can be measured in the last year of making college visits, college choices, buying dormitory bedding or the untold joy of filling out financial aid forms. My particular journey was salted by the sudden yet not completely unexpected visual appearance of my ex-husband — just in time for the graduation celebration and going off to college festivities. See The Unspoken Pain of Sharing Celebrations. Despite the extra anxiety, the kid is safely enrolled on a residential college campus. He won’t be home until Thanksgiving. Going Away To School — And Staying There.
Now that he’s gone I am often asked, “Don’t you miss him?”
And sometimes, I say, “Oh yes, yes, I do.” But I’m faking it.
Really, I’m thinking, “Oh crap. Wait! I’m supposed to miss him? Already?”
He’s only been gone a couple of weeks. I’ve been so focused on getting him ready for college and out of our suffocating suburb and the stupid visitation schedule — I had not counted on the expectation that I should miss him — so soon. I mean I cried the traditional tears when I said goodbye and left my boy to live elsewhere, with people I don’t know. I’m sure I sported the vacant, almost Zombie-like look that the freshman parents had wandering around campus and in the bookstore having been separated from their precious babies. I did all of that.
But then I came home
— and rearranged his room.
Apparently many other parents and loved ones are really grieving about the absence of their college freshman. People are asking me how I’m holding up. And how the siblings are doing. And I am reminded of the episode of Sex and The City when Miranda, who is pregnant, finds out the gender of the baby and everyone expects her show excitement at the fact that she now knows she’s having a boy. After a while she just feigns a show of excitement to satisfy the general public. “I faked a sonogram,” she admits. Sex and the City, Season Four, Episode 15 “Change of a Dress”
And then there’s me. I love my son. I am so ridiculously proud of him. And his absence is felt, that is true. It was kind of weird on the first day of school when there was one less child I had to beg to allow me to take a picture of. But I admit, I am not the face of mother grieving over temporary absence of her son, though I sometimes play the part.
My son, who I sometimes refer to as The Arrogant One, has always been fiercely independent, while simultaneously relying on me to support his endeavors, get things taken care of, and sit in the audience and bleachers and watch him do what he does. He’s been away from home before — going on an annual week-long vacation with a friend’s family and traveling to Europe for eleven days. I remember preparing for the Europe trip, going to a meeting where many parents were asking how they would be able to contact their children while they were away. Other than in the event of an emergency, I hadn’t considered needing to talk to my son during his eleven day trip. It was only eleven days! But back then I started to panic — Was I supposed to be in contact with my kid all the time? Was I missing some sort of mom gene? I had, with the other parents, helped raise the money so they could go on this wonderful tour. Now weren’t we supposed to let them go and have fun without us? Why did I never even consider needing to call him while he was out of the country for less two weeks?
I figured that I’d hear about it when he got home. Turns out I was wrong about that . . . but I digress.
Me: “How was the trip?”
Him: “Good, really good.”
And that was that. Oh I probed him for some additional details, but . . . it was his experience, not mine.
I’ve been feeling that same kind of panic lately when people ask me how I’m “holding up” since my son’s departure. (Wait, I’m supposed to be falling apart?) And when my daughter, the one I refer to as The Quirky One, the one who is very sensitive — almost a Star Trek level Empath, burst into tears saying she missed her brother, I was taken off guard. I consoled her. I told her I knew it was weird not having him here and that it’s okay to miss him and he’ll be home before we know it, but I thought to myself — “He’s really not that nice to you, he told you that you were worthless. Why are you crying for him?” He’s not very nice to his sisters. That’s a fact, and an issue I’ve tried to address. So to the people who feel sorry for him for being the only boy, well, I’m not feeling that. He has stated out loud that he’s more important and smarter and a better person than his sisters, who, in his mind, do not deserve any attention. And sometimes, him being a teen person, he wasn’t very nice to me either. (I’m the safe parent, you see, the one who gets the crap because the child is comfortable that I’ll be here regardless. Sigh.) So there are things — like his assertions of superiority — that I definitely will not miss. Now he’s dealing with the fish/pond thing — everyone on his campus is a high achiever like him and he won’t have his little sisters to belittle to make himself seem more important. And I think it’ll be good for him. Nay, necessary for him.
And my failure to pine after my college dwelling son might also be a big family thing — one less kid to feed, or who needs to be picked up or dropped off somewhere, or requires some sort of supplies, etc. One less kid to start an argument with the remaining kids. And to me, someone who is the only adult living in a little house full of teens, having one less home means having one less person to ridicule and/or ignore me, and one less person who has no problem vocalizing the assumption that I know absolutely nothing.
So, do I miss him?
I know I’m supposed to say, “Yes, God yes.” I know I’m supposed to well up and tell you exactly how many days it will be until I see him, and the last time I talked to him, but . . . as my own mother used to say when we went away,
“Yeah, I miss them, but it’s a good miss.”
The last thing I said to my son when I left him on campus, when I said goodbye to my baby through tearing eyes was, “I am so so proud of you. I love you. And you know I’ll always have your back. Have fun and learn.”
And, upon my return, one of my daughters asked the definitively more important question,
“Do we still have to wear pants in the house now that the boy is gone?”
“Yes, yes, you do,” I answered.
But it’s not because of him. It’s not about him anymore.
In Sex and The City Miranda did have a quiet moment when she first felt her unborn son move — it brought her to her knees, and that was her first moment of connection. Quiet, and unexpected and not when people thought she should have it. I assume at some point there will be something that triggers me — something that makes it painfully clear to me that my first-born will never really live under my roof in the same way again — if things go well. Then I’ll acknowledge the reality — that this first step into pseudo-adulthood is actually a natural progression to full adulthood, that one day I’ll end up being the mom to call from time to time with news, for advice, and someone to visit on the holidays — maybe someday with his own family. And I suspect, that like with Miranda, it’ll be a private moment of reflection when I’ll truly feel my son’s — move.
But in the meantime, as I sit in his room writing behind what used to be his closed door –with my pants on while relishing in the fact that in my now all girl household we could go pants-less any time we damn well please —
Do I miss him?
Not yet, but . . . it’s early. Give it time.
Just Me With . . . One less child under my roof — until Thanksgiving, anyway.
Postscript: My son has matured immensely. Graduated college, lives on his own in a different city now. He’s a nicer guy. And in his own way, he shows his appreciation for me, my struggles.
If you’ve read My High School Self, you know I had a very serious boyfriend in high school. We were still dating when I went away to college. My boyfriend lived at home and commuted to a local school in the city. I, like my sisters before me, went away to school, at a private, residential four-year university. This was in the dark ages, meaning before everyone had cell phones. I had two roommates and we shared a land line in our room.
To keep in touch, my boyfriend and I had set up a calling schedule while I was away. He called on Friday and Saturday nights at 11:00pm. Think about it. Weekends at 11pm. This was not good for my social life. Not at all. It suited him, though. He came home on Friday nights an had nothing to do and no one to do it with.
The weekend calls placed me in an awkward position. If I went out with people I’d have to come back alone by 11 for the call. If I waited until after the call, it would be too late, people were either already out and about or by the time I got off the phone they might be coming home.
I was having a hard time fitting in anyway. I didn’t drink. Most of the freshman nightlife had to do with drinking at Frat Parties and such. (Frat Parties were so important I still feel the need to capitalize it). But I just wasn’t the Frat Party type. And there was the dating scene, of which I was not a part because I already had a boyfriend. And, at this time in the dark ages and at this university, as a woman of color I was kind of invisible to the cute Frat boys. Plus, I felt I needed to show my boyfriend I was doing the right thing, or more accurately, not the wrong thing, while I was away. I didn’t want him to think I was drinking, cheating, changing in any way or even having a good time. He was lonely. Most of his friends (including his girlfriend) had gone away to school and he hadn’t. He had gone from big man at High School to being just another commuting student in college. I knew how miserable he was and I wanted to be there for him. I was also determined to beat the odds and show the world that I could fulfill my academic promise yet still keep my boyfriend and be faithful to the parameters of our relationship. Yes, co-dependency at its finest, ladies and gentlemen. Neither one of us was going to be happy if we clung to each other and our mutual miseries, limitations and fears.
My college had a homogeneous population (huge understatement). The university was not known for being diverse or popular among people of color, who were a very small minority there. And the majority of the majority were from suburban or rural areas, or prep schools and really had not been exposed to much diversity and did not choose this college in order to be exposed to different types of people. So many of them had the same backgrounds, ambitions and interests. For folks not in the mainstream, sometimes the culture shock was an insurmountable obstacle. Add to that the fact that the school is in the middle of nowhere. There was no town or city to which to escape from the suffocating sameness. Consequently, people of color, foreign students, and city kids regardless of socio-economic status would sometimes seek each other out for support. I, in addition to being African-American, was more of the creative type, and just, well . . . different. But being a suburban girl, I thought I’d be okay there; I didn’t expect a culture shock at all. What a silly girl I was, I did not fully appreciate the level of isolation and cultural homogeneity I had signed up for. This place made my vanilla suburb seem like the Rainbow Coalition. My sisters (who attended similar schools) assured me that once I found friends I’d be hanging out in dorms playing cards and listening to music. At my college, the only people I’d met so far just went out to the Frat houses and drank. I felt invisible yet at the same time exposed — like I stuck out like a sore thumb — not drinking, not dating, not looking like the other kids — it was a culture shock.
If that wasn’t enough, by the luck of the draw I had been assigned to the only female freshman dorm located “up hill” on campus. It was physically removed from the other dorms and the upper class houses which were all “down hill.” Frat houses and most of the lecture halls were “up hill.” I wasn’t really sure what was “down hill,” other than the cafeteria. But I was beginning to realize that unless I started to go out somewhere, I wasn’t going to meet people outside of my dorm floor. Yeah, I was having a hard time fitting in . . . again.
Then I got an invitation, right there in my mailbox.
It was an invitation to a party at, let’s call it, Walnut Street House, sponsored by the Black Students Association. The House, which was a restored Victorian home turned into a small dorm, was kind of like an International House, except it was inhabited by upper class African-American female students, mostly. But this invitation was for a dance party in the common room there. Cool. And it said to dress up!!! Yay! Now, I may not have been a drinker back then, but I did love to dance. And a chance to go somewhere in something other than a turtleneck, sweater and duck boots was enticing. My musical tastes were classical by day and classic R&B by night, and in a campus full of beer drinking rockers who didn’t dance – unless you count the drunken jumping up and down thing — this sounded like fun. Maybe I would go, I thought. Maybe I would go.
But the dance was —- yikes! — on a Saturday night. How would I be able to explain this to my boyfriend? I might miss his call! And I’d been complaining to him about how everything at the school was all about the drinking and the Frat parties and we were acting so superior to it all, blah, blah, blah. He never liked me going to any kind of parties. In fact, in high school he forbade me to go to parties. How could I just tell him I’d found somewhere to go? But I was so lonely. I needed to meet other people. My initial attempts at going out with the girls on my hall hadn’t been fun. Really, I just hadn’t found my niche yet and it was taking too damn long. I’d started skipping meals to avoid the cafeteria and studying more than probably necessary (I made the Dean’s list, though, . . . but I digress) . I was bored, I was starting to need more. My two roommates were okay, my Hall was okay, but I hadn’t made any good friends and spent too much time alone. Everyone else seemed to be having fun, and my College Self, in a new place, and separated from the boyfriend for the first time, thought life was passing me by.
I decided I would go to the party. Alone, of course. Going places alone is a skill I developed too early. Women are supposed to travel in packs, right? I hadn’t gotten that memo. But after all, I was invited, by name, so I could go — alone. And I was going to go, damnit.
There was only one other black freshman woman in my whole dorm (out of a couple of hundred girls). She was probably invited also, but she was not in my half of the dorm and we had never spoken. Even when I had passed her in the courtyard and said hello she had averted her eyes. No judgment, but clearly I would be walking “down hill” alone. I could only hope that once I got there it would be okay. It was a big chance.
My bigger concern, though, was my boyfriend. How to deal with my boyfriend? The one who didn’t drink, didn’t dance, didn’t go away to college, didn’t want me to do . . . any of those things. Hmm.
On the Friday night call I explained to him that I thought I’d go out Saturday, and asked if could he call me later than 11:00. (I know, not the best move on my part. But I felt I needed to reassure him of my faithfulness and commitment to misery.) He planned to call me at midnight. I’m not gonna lie, this was okay with me, it gave me an out in case the party was horrible or if I felt stupid going alone. And, I figured, the party started at ten — two hours would be enough, right?
Well, Saturday night came. I put on a skirt and sweater and nice shoes. Told my roommates I had somewhere to go — ha! I took my “Walk of Shame” “down hill” to the party alone, passing people walking “up hill” to the frat houses. They were dressed for drinking; I was dressed for dancing. I arrived “down hill” almost exactly at 10 o’clock. Now I ask you, have you ever known a college party to start when it’s supposed to? Is it ever cool to show up promptly when a party starts? No, no, no. Yet there I was, right on time. I walked in and the lights were off — in party mode, somebody was DJ-ing — and yay, it was R&B and Funk, something to dance to. . . but no one was there!
I wandered around in the foyer for a bit, occupied myself by pretending to read bulletin boards, contemplated leaving. Finally, people started to trickle in. Some dude came out from the back, saw me and left. I saw the “I can’t believe she showed up” look. Ha! But now I couldn’t leave, I’d been seen. Truly, I didn’t care. I was just happy to be out of my room, and somewhere that didn’t smell of cheap beer.
Once the party actually got started I got lots of attention and dances. And bonus, everybody was nice! I met some other freshmen and some upper classmen. People were wondering why they hadn’t met me before. Well, I was an “up hill” girl and these students, at least the girls, lived “down hill.” I had no idea. That night I planted the seeds of some friendships that last to this day. It was college, so I’m sure some of the people there were drinking, but the drinking was not the focus of the party, it was the music. I was actually having fun.
But, in horror . . . I looked at the clock, it was almost midnight!!!!
Crap! I wasn’t in any deep conversation with anyone, I was just starting to meet people. In short, I really had no one to say goodbye to. It’s not like there was a formal host or hostess.
So I just, well — left. As mysteriously as I’d arrived, I left—-
. . . at midnight.
Alone, I ran up the hill in heels to try to get back to my room in time for my scheduled Saturday night phone call from my boyfriend.
I’d missed it. But c’mon, folks, of course he called back.
It didn’t all change in one night. I remained separated and aloof and miserable for a while. But by my sophomore year of college, I’d found people with common interests, and made friends with some of the people I’d met at that dance party, one of whom became my sophomore roommate and a very good friend. I’d changed my major to my love — music, and met more of my creative brethren there. I learned to drink (hard liquor, not beer) and made my own stories in that regard. Still, I never became a Frat party regular, except for Reggae night. Reggae nights were fun, because of the dancing. I think the last time I went to a regular Frat party some dude pissed on the floor right in front of me, and I was done. He’s probably a Congressman now . . . but I digress . . . again.
Much later, one of guys I’d met at that first dance party told me that that was the night the boys started calling me . . . Cinderella.
Well, I had been the mysterious (and yeah, I’ll say it — pretty) girl who showed up alone at a party, danced her behind off, and ran out at midnight without saying goodbye.
There was no Prince Charming or anything like that. But there were two evil step sisters — my roommates. Alright, so they weren’t actually evil but since they were having an easier time making friends and fitting in while I sat in my room and watched — well, in my fairy tale that qualifies as evil.
What about a wicked step mother? Well, my boyfriend, of course. He seemed intent on keeping me in my place, in my own little corner in my own little chair— meaning, in my dorm room on the phone with him — on the weekend.
As an added postscript, shortly after the party a couple of the guys came knocking on my door to say hello. They weren’t looking to fit a lost glass slipper, but they were coming to find me . . . heh heh heh.
However, there was most certainly no Fairy Godmother. Still waiting for her ass to show up. Humph.
Just Me With . . . a Cinderella Story, well kind of . . .