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.
Yes, my children think that I’m an alcoholic. It came up one night when my girls were in my bedroom. I try to keep my bedroom nice, as a retreat for me. I didn’t realize that it would attract my female offspring. They keep their rooms like hoarders-in-training but come to my room to relax. It’s just not fair . . . but I digress . . .
One night when they were lounging in my room one daughter told me she thinks I’m an alcoholic.
“What? Why?” I asked, completely shocked.
“Well, a recovering alcoholic,” she clarified, and further explained, “I’ve never seen you drink.'” She pointed out that she’d seen my sisters and my best friend drink but, “You never do, Mommy.”
“Even Daddy drinks,” she added. I must have made a face of some sort because she quickly said, “But not too much.”
She went on, “But Mommy you never drink so I figured — you can’t. And you never have alcohol in the house. What grown up never has alcohol in the house?”
Well damn. The kid has it all figured out. Her sisters chimed in and agreed. “Oh yeah, I thought that, too,” said one. “Me too,” said another. The one I call “The Quirky One” just smiled.
“But I’m not an alcoholic!” I protested.
“Recovering alcoholic, mom,” she corrected me.
Sooo. My kids think I’m an alcoholic because I don’t drink. Yup, It’s very difficult to prove that you are not a recovering alcoholic if someone thinks you are.
Am I going to have to throw a few back at the dinner table just to show my kids I’m not a drunk? Bring a six-pack to the high school football game maybe? Down a Bloody Mary at breakfast?
Damn kids don’t know my life.
The truth is, except for the college years I’ve never been much of a drinker. My ex-husband was absolutely and totally against drinking, see My High School Self and The Night I Became Cinderella. I didn’t make my own decisions about it, Instead, I followed his lead since he had very strong opinions that theoretically made sense. He had come from a family that had been plagued by substance abuse. Most of his siblings have had issues, serious issues. Even his mother, her first and second husbands, and his estranged father reportedly had bouts with addiction. He’d seen some bad things caused by alcohol or drugs and feared the propensity for addiction might be hereditary. I’d seen the effects on his family and vowed never to expose my own children to that lifestyle.
So he and I were going to be different.
I didn’t drink, except at college where I drank behind his back with my college friends whom he never really liked. After we were married we only kept alcohol in the house for holidays. Bottles of hard alcohol collected dust on top of the cabinets until they were wiped clean and set out at Christmas. We were definitely not a “wine with dinner” family. My husband and I shared a few drinks over the years, but by and large I completely missed the typical partying or bar hopping of youth and the happy hours of the young professionals. Then came the pregnancy and breastfeeding years where I had to abstain anyway — so it’s been years since I’ve been any kind of drinker.
No matter, after double-digit years of marriage and five children my husband left me. I could do whatever I damn well pleased.
Unfortunately, at the time that meant taking anti-depressants.
Fact: You’re not supposed to drink when taking anti-depressants. So, I didn’t. I follow directions, you see. I’m obedient like that. No drinks for me while I was on the meds.
No matter, after a very difficult “discontinuation period” (aka “withdrawal”), I’m off the anti-depressants. Technically, or should I say, medically, I can drink now. Hooray, hooray!
But I still don’t drink.
First, I’m a complete lightweight. After not drinking for years, I can’t hold my liquor. Half a drink and I’m tipsy, and not in a good way.
Second, since I roll solo most of the time, I’m always my own designated driver so . . . can’t drink.
Third, now is not the time to start having alcohol at home, not with a house full of teenagers.
And fourth, I’m the custodial parent of five children. I’ve got responsibilities, I can’t sit at the local bar with friends every night. That ship has sailed. I missed it. Damn it.
So yeah, I’m free to do what I want now — except that I’m not, not exactly, not really. Story of my life . . . but I digress . . .
But this is what kills me — my formerly anti-social, teetotaler, judgmental ex-husband is now the life of the party. After years of telling me that drinking was wrong, that he was afraid of addiction, that he didn’t think kids should be exposed to alcohol — now he drinks and to our kids, he’s the normal one . . . but me? Me?
Hello, I’m Mommy and I’m an alcoholic.
Just Me With . . . a drink in my hand. It’s coffee.
It begs the question: If my girls think that because they’ve never seen me drink I must be an alcoholic, what do they think about the fact that they’ve never seen me date? I mean, their Dad has found love and remarried. I, on the other hand, have not. I abstain, or so it may seem. The girls probably think I don’t occasionally enjoy the company of a man (or keep one in the house) because I’m either: (1) still heartbroken about their Dad, or (2) have herpes.
Humph. Offensive, either way.
Related: Getting Off The Meds
I’m just trying to make it “One Day At A Time” like divorced TV mom Annie Romano, except that I have two Barbaras and two Julies, and a boy.
Let me set the scene. As per usual I was unsuccessful in getting certain tasks completed before the kids came back from a visit with their dad. As per usual none of the kids gave the requested heads up text to let me know they were on their way before they came. (I didn’t know what time they were coming home, only that they’d be home earlier than the required drop off time because one of the kids had a rehearsal.)
So the kids walked in to me in the middle of various projects — hanging a shelf, bagging their clothes they refused to wash, my private journal open on the kitchen table and Sex and The City blaring on all three TVs. (It’s one of my secret single behaviors to turn on all the TVs while cleaning so as I’m walking around the house I can still hear and glance at whatever is on. Don’t judge.) I was startled and felt like I got caught doing something wrong.
Turns out, I apparently had done something wrong.
My cleaning and organizing efforts were rewarded with a fit of rage from the Anxious child. Her twin, the Angry child was — guess what? Angry. As per usual, she did not enjoy her visit with her dad and brought her frustration home to me. The other kids just breezed in, dropped their stuff where they felt like it and perched various places in the house to eat the fast food their dad sent them home with. Someone got the Angry child’s order wrong and she was angry about that, too, no surprise. Somehow this anger was directed toward me.
It is always stressful when the kids get home. They’d only been gone for twenty-eight hours but the whole visitation process: getting them ready and out of the door when they’d rather not go, their behavior when they return, my guilt over how I choose spend my time when they are gone (not getting enough done, not having any fun) is always difficult. See Weekends Off.
After the tirade from the Anxious and Angry twins and my frustrated response, I still had to drive the oldest to rehearsal and get some dinner for myself.
During the drive I tried some relaxation techniques I’ve been reading about. I took deep breaths. I sat in my car for a bit to calm down. And, in an uncharacteristic move, when I returned I decided to sit down and watch something funny. Normally I would hide from my ill-tempered children or launch into a series of chores and attempt to get them to do the same. But instead I loaded the DVD player with my new favorite guilty pleasure, Pitch Perfect. Don’t judge. Okay, go ahead and judge. And yes, we own it.
The girls joined me. When he returned from his rehearsal, the Arrogant one — the boy, retired to his boudoir as per usual. To his credit, he was doing a massive amount of homework that he saved for when he got back from the visit. His choice, his stress.
What people say about humor and music is true. Watching Pitch Perfect made me feel better. Miraculously, both the Anxious child and her twin, the Angry child, calmed down.
But when I got up to go into the kitchen to get a drink, however, I was met with a surprise.
Someone had opened every single cabinet and drawer in the kitchen.
It’s not just a matter of neatness, leaving cabinets open has scared the bejesus out of me way back to The Sixth Sense!
Do you remember the abused ghost wife and the open cabinets in The Sixth Sense?
I stopped dead in my tracks. I was already emotionally fragile.
I WAS TRYING TO CALM DOWN!!!!!
But those people I made, those people I grew in my belly like mold, those people know that having all the cabinets and drawers open frightens me!
It probably goes back to Poltergeist as well.
I just don’t do well with kitchen surprises. I’m okay with bugs, I’ve dealt with some nasty stuff, see Piss, Puke and Porn, but open cabinets — scare me.
I froze in my steps, mouth agape. When I could finally move I gingerly walked the five steps back into the family room and cried to my four female spawn,
“WHO DID THAT? You know that scares me!”
Then I collapsed on the floor and laughed so hard I cried. I didn’t go back in my kitchen until I got a confession out of the Quirky one and ordered her to go in there and close everything up.
Oh, those people I made all had a good laugh about it. Great big belly laughs. I was a hysterical mess on the floor, but unlike some of my past days, it was in a good way.
I guess the experts are right that laughter helps with depression and anxiety.
But does it have to be at my expense? Does it?
I just looked at my girl, the Quirky one — the Offender, and said,
“You used to be one of the ones that I liked.”
Just Me With . . . a weird phobia, an unexpectedly devious Quirky child and a good laugh — on the floor.
Given my mood, it was a bold move on the Quirky One’s part. I have to respect her risk-taking.
Shout out to Merbear who inspired me to write something positive about my girls. Well, I don’t know if it was positive, damn kids.
Other Kitchen Surprises:
I admit. I’m on my phone a lot. All the time.
But I didn’t grow up on my phone all the time. I grew up — using both hands!
The other day my daughter and I went to the neighbors’ house to walk their dog. I wanted to make sure she could do it by herself. Accordingly, I instructed her to open the door by herself using the key. She dutifully inserted the key in the lock with her right hand and turned. The door did not pop open, of course. She turned the key again with her right hand. It did not open. Her left hand hung at her side.
She was bewildered, perplexed, really.
She turned the key again with her right hand. Her empty left hand still hung at her side, useless.
Before my head exploded, I had to speak up — slowly:
“Turn the key with one hand, use the other hand to turn the knob and push.”
She’s a teen, not a toddler. Yet it had not occurred to her to use both hands.
I blame Apple. Usually this kid has a phone and/or iPod in hand. She is so used to holding a device that it has rendered one hand useless, even when it’s empty.
This scenario has happened often with my kids. They only use one hand for most things, even cooking. Oh, I admit they’ve become quite adept at using one hand, but it’s not efficient. Not at all.
And it looks ridiculous.
When my children were babies and toddlers they always scored so well on those tests for large and small motor skills. They could manipulate small toys and they could climb on anything.
Now they forget that they have two hands.
I think someone should conduct a study on the long-term effects of the use of personal digital devices on the (arrested) development of manual dexterity in teens — because I think this is a problem.
Seriously. Have you ever watched a person do laundry with one hand? It’s ridiculous.
Just Me With . . . both hands.
I was a couple of weeks shy of eighteen, we’d been dating for two years. He had recently become my first, I was not his. I loved him. He loved me. One of the things I loved about being with him was the fact that I could be myself . I didn’t have to prove anything or act a certain way. I didn’t have to try to fit in or be a certain type of girl. He gave me something– not school related — to do. In hindsight, what he provided me was a way to escape those awkward teen years of discovering myself, making choices and mistakes, finding my own way, being proud of who I was and who I wasn’t, making new friends, and learning how to be social. He had already made some decisions about life, had some bad experiences and had strong opinions about almost everything. He was an old soul. I was not. It ate me up.
He was completely against drinking (which is not a bad thing for someone underage, but he would not even go to parties where others might be drinking, even if they were hiding it.) I respected him for that. I supported him in that. He had had a rough upbringing. His mother had a bad reputation, his brother was the local drug dealer, other family members, including siblings and his mother’s boyfriends had addictions, and teen pregnancies were the norm in his family. So having been brought up in the underbelly of drug and alcohol addiction, he swore never the touch the stuff and forbade me to get near it. In his family, he was the one good child. He wanted to stay that way. He was painfully shy unless involved in a sport, so he wasn’t one for hanging out. He didn’t want to travel because he didn’t see the need, and was uncomfortable out of our town. He hated the beach, sand; he hated crowds. He was also very possessive and jealous, so he kept me close and would become angry if he felt threatened.
But he was very cute, tall, slim with haunting light eyes. Teachers loved him, though he was not academically oriented or talented. I think, like me, they saw a polite guy who, despite his family, seemed to be a good kid. He was charming that way. People wanted to help him. People wanted to forgive any shortcomings. He had a smile that could and did charm everyone — that is, when he did smile. Most of the time, unless people were looking, he appeared sullen, angry. Some folks were a little scared of him. (Years later a friend described him like this: He’s the kind of guy where when he walks into a room, the temperature drops ten degrees.)
Me? Well, I was an achiever, academically, musically and athletically, but socially I had struggled, been a victim of past bullying. I was a book smart girl from a good (if not wealthy) family; my parents were teachers. My siblings were in college, they had gotten away from our suffocating suburb. I was lonely. I wanted to have fun but I was basically the stereotypical “good girl” from a stable family. I would never want to do anything that would embarrass my family, and my girlfriends weren’t drinkers or party girls either. Still, we liked to go to parties and dances and just have some sober fun. Before I started dating him, I had had only one short relationship with a boy. Nothing to speak of. No broken hearts. I don’t think we ever even went anywhere together. My hymen was still intact.
I did not have a normal or healthy introduction to dating. And, at my tender teen age, I thought I’d never have a real boyfriend. At the time, I truly thought he was my only and best chance at having any attention from a boy. He was what I needed.
Miraculously, once I started dating him, the bullying stopped as well as the false rumors about me. (Somehow, I had gained the reputation of being a slut according to popular, misinformed opinion, even though I was a virgin.) But with him, I had support. His family loved me. He loved me.
I see now I was co-dependent. But then? I was in love.
I had nothing to compare him to. My girlfriends weren’t dating, they didn’t know any better than me. After having been treated so badly by other kids, I thought this was right, and in a way, it did save me. (The reasons for the bullying have to do with racial/socio-economic differences, that are just too much to get into now.) I never told my parents about how I had been treated at school. I should have.
He and I were inseparable. I was so happy to have a boyfriend. But we rarely went anywhere with other people. Usually we went to movies or hung out at his or my house. He met me at my locker every morning. We met between classes. (We never had classes together, I was in the college prep courses, he was not). We were such a cute, dysfunctional couple. Both tall, and we even looked a bit alike.
One night, there was a Friday night basketball game, as usual. He was a star player, I was a cheerleader. (I know, gag me). We never went to the parties afterward, though, if there were any. We were an antisocial couple. But this night, for some reason, he decided he wanted to go to a party. I don’t know why. I never knew why. He usually was against such behavior. He told me to go home, I wasn’t allowed to go. Obediently, I went home. I didn’t see him for the rest of the weekend, which sometimes happened since neither one of us had a car, and in addition to my studies I had a part-time job.
The following Monday, he did not come to my locker. When I found him, he seemed distant. He wouldn’t make eye contact. I knew something was wrong. I knew something was different. Paranoid, and suddenly needing reassurance, I asked him,
“Don’t you love me anymore?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. (My very being shook to the core, I felt as though I died a bit. My knees buckled.)
In another cruel twist of fact, it was Valentine’s Day, the day we celebrated as our anniversary.
I was still reeling from his answer when he added that — he wanted to see other people!!!!!!!
Then he looked me in the eyes to tell me, “I don’t want you to, though.”
“Okay,” I said. (I know, I know. In my head the voices still scream Nooooooo!!!!!! But I was already under his thumb, I didn’t know how to act differently. I was completely caught off guard, he had changed all the rules without any warning. I was still freaked out because he went to a party. And now this? I had given myself to him in every way possible, and now, it wasn’t enough, or it didn’t matter, or — I didn’t know what was happening!!!!!)
I was heartbroken, devastated, confused. For about two weeks, I continued to allow him to meet me at my locker, walk me in the halls, kiss me hello and goodbye. I was still his girlfriend. But there were more goodbyes than hellos, and I saw him flirting with other girls; he didn’t hide it. He had a swagger about him. I felt beaten.
Since we’d been dating for two years, we were quite an item. We were the golden couple. But kids talked. They knew there had been a change yet we had not broken up. Through the high school rumor mill I found out later that during the party he attended a girl I knew had flirted with him. Well, she grabbed his crotch, is what I heard. That must have been enough to turn the tide, to make him take the next step after control and isolation, to further humiliate me, his girlfriend of two years — but still keep me at his beck and call. Yet he acted as though this was completely normal. And I allowed it. (It was the beginning of a hurtful and unhealthy pattern of accommodation I have struggled with ever since.)
Later, a friend of his and fellow basketball player who was in one of my classes said to me,
“I don’t know how you put up with it.”
(I think I visibly shuddered. I was trying to operate under the illogical belief that no one knew what was really going on.)
The nice boy continued, “I mean, given his family and all it’s amazing he’s turned out as good as he has, but still . . . he shouldn’t be doing this to you.”
Hearing that from another boy, a boy who was a childhood friend of his but who didn’t know me that well, got to me. Plus, I did some thinking. I had more time on my hands, after all. Throughout this whole thing I kept coming back to the fact that I loved him. I kept telling myself, “But I love him.” But then I thought, is being in love supposed to feel like this? Because this doesn’t feel good. This isn’t fun. Love shouldn’t feel like this.
The next day I was not at my locker when he went to meet me.
He had to find me. When he did, I just said I wasn’t going to do this anymore.
When an abused woman hits back, it’s useless unless she kills or runs. Hitting back and standing there just sets her up for another beat down. Mine was coming.
I cannot remember what he said exactly, or what he did, he must have told me he loved me. I know he demanded to know why I wasn’t as my designated place. But I’m not sure. I think I may have blocked it out, because it was so contrary to my sense of self-preservation. I’ve beat myself up for years because of it.
Bottom line: He got me back.
He said he wasn’t going to see other girls. We were monogamous again. (Well, he was monogamous again, I had never been free.) I didn’t date anyone else in high school. He was still my boyfriend when I went to college. Years later, I married him.
Months ago, our divorce became final. He has since remarried.
I heard later that the girl who had felt him up at the party told him she couldn’t actually date him because her family would not accept her dating a black boy. Whatever. His coming back to me had nothing to do with me — except that he wanted to keep me — unto him, under him.
When I had started to pull away, he pulled me back — and he was stronger.
I had traded one kind of bullying for another, really.
But something broke inside me then, not because of how he treated me, but because I allowed it . . . and I think . . . just now, I’m trying to get it fixed.
Just Me With . . . a love story?
P.S. Why all the Twilight pics? I have a hard time with the series because of my romantic history. A high school girl who does not fit in should have a chance to experience life outside of high school before changing her DNA for a boy. Bella is so sad and tortured and Edward makes her feel better, but I want her to go to college, get a job, move to a place where she chooses, and have fun, make friends, have boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, without all the danger and without having to forsake her belief system, family, and biological options before she’s had a chance to even develop them.
It’s okay not to have a boyfriend in high school. It really is. And it’s okay to break up with your first love.
For a story on what it was like to still have my boyfriend when I went away to college, see The Night I Became Cinderella.
And for how I feel about him now? I Don’t Love Him.