The month in which Spring starts to warm us all up and take its hold on everything living. Its blooming flowers, budding trees, and nesting birds renew our spirit after the chill. It’s also a time of Spring Break beach trips, senior proms and college acceptance letters—or sometimes disappointing college letters.
April starts the crescendo of a student’s senior year. It’s a time of excitement, future plans, hopes and dreams for graduates. Parties begin and memories are made as they count down the seconds to that proud cap and gown moment. It’s been coming all year for them, and now it’s almost here. They’ve studied, they’ve tested, they’ve sweated final exams, AP exams, ACT exams and SAT exams. It’s as if the entire world wants another opportunity to fry their brain one more time before they leave high school.
Emotions can run high in a lot of households senior year. There are important decisions to be made by young people who are still leaving the stove on after making their mac and cheese and parents who are walking the line between speaking up and keeping quiet about so many considerations. As a parent, you don’t want to influence them too much, but you don’t want them to miss an opportunity either. You don’t want to deny them, but you also have to be realistic about college tuition, expenses, long distance travel, and what type of college is a match for your child. I think there were more tears shed in our house during our oldest daughter’s senior year than all the other child-rearing years combined.
But let me clarify—those tears were mine.
None of what I mentioned above is a surprise to any parent. You know all that is coming as you navigate through the high school years, but you get a sudden jolt into it when the school asks you to order your child’s cap and gown and graduation invitations the first week of school. The first week of school? I remember thinking “can’t they ease me into this, like cold water? Why do they have to slap me with cap and gown nonsense the first week?” Oh no, that bronco comes out of the gate bucking wide open, and he’s wearing a tassel.
And then it’s an entire school year of “lasts.” The last first day of school, the last school pictures, the last football game, soccer game, volleyball game, Homecoming…and the list goes on. Us mothers recite this to ourselves over and over that senior year. It’s as if we need to say it to make it official, to make it accepted—in our hearts.
I was the type of mother who put my kids on the bus on the first day of kindergarten with hardly a flinch. They were excited, and I was excited for them. No tears for either of us. Then I managed through all the years of school, the plays, the music programs, parent teacher conferences, lunches, homework, football games, cheer, dance, baseball taking it all in stride, never emotional about any of it, but just checking it off as if it were on a list. I was “all business” as a mom, so imagine how surprised I was when my daughter’s senior year I was suddenly “all unglued.”
I’m not talking a little warm tear squeaking out unnoticed at senior night escorting our daughter onto the football field, oh no. I’m talking sobbing, snot-flinging, spit-stringing, nose-blowing, congested, swollen lips, eyes that looked like they’ve been used as a punching bag, still in my bathrobe at 3:00 when your kids come home—kind of unglued.
That was me. Every single day of her senior year.
It started the second she left the house on “the last first day of school.” Everyday I got all 3 kids off to school, and as soon as they left I would feel a dark veil fall over me like a weighted blanket. At first I was so caught off guard. What was going on? This has to be normal? I’m sure this will pass, right?
I’m not an overly, outwardly, emotional person being from a family of southern women who see crying as a weakness so I couldn’t identify this alien emotion that was possessing me. The agony that took place in my mind and heart that year was grippingly painful.
Some of my thoughts that tormented me:
We will never be a family of five again.
The dynamic of our family is forever changing.
The dinner table will never be the same.
What if she never comes back home?
What if she gets homesick?
What if something bad happens and I’m not there?
She is NOT ready yet.
I felt so ripped off by life that year. I felt as if I had just been “renting” a daughter and now suddenly the lease was up. The world was taking her back from me, and I wasn’t done with her yet. I still had so much to teach her, to prepare her for. I felt overwhelming heartache and panic at the thought of letting her go.
I was genuinely pissed at a friend of mine who had gone through her son’s senior year the year before and had not mentioned any of this horror to me. How could she not tell me? I mean sincerely miffed…and at the same time I realized how irrational that was to be mad at her for MY emotions. They certainly weren’t her fault or her problem. I was so overwhelmed by the complexity of my emotions I was looking for something or someone to blame them on or a way to explain them. I’m the mother who always has it together, what in the world is wrong with me?
And then after weeks and weeks of the kids coming home to snotty mom who’s still in her bathrobe, I was visited by a friend. When I opened the door, he quickly looked at his watch and at me in my bathrobe, and at his watch again.
“Shut up, yes I know it’s 2:00, and yes I know I’m still in my pajamas.”
He lovingly stepped into my mental and emotional breakdown with both feet as only a dear friend can do. I sobbed to him. He laughed. He made me laugh. And as I talked my senseless mama babble through my drool and snot and countless tissues he just sat there, listening and finally took a deep breath.
“You’ve just never had these emotions before. Your mind and your heart don’t know what they are or what to do with them. That’s why you’re having such a hard time with all this. You’re processing feelings that you don’t recognize. Best thing to do is just lean into it.”
I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted some magic advice to make me stop crying. I was going through a box of tissues a day something had to be done.
“Lean into it.” I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. He was a retired Marine so I was wholeheartedly expecting him to say “suck it up Princess, now blow your nose and go get your shoes, let’s go for a run,” but his advice was just lean into it.
I thought hard about his words as everyday continued to be me sitting at home alone, sobbing, still going through box after box of tissues. The people at Kimberly Clark really should have sent me a thank you note that year.
Lean into it.
So lean into it I did. Hard.
I decided to make a graduation video for our daughter.
So from that point on every day was spent sobbing even harder as I sifted through eighteen years of photos and then put them all in a montage to sweet, sentimental, completely heart-wrenching, music. I wondered some days if you could die from crying? I had already proven to myself you could throw up from crying, but could you cry all the moisture out of your body and die of dehydration? I didn’t eat. I didn’t drink. I just cried. All day.
I hardly cooked dinner making 2010 a banner year for our local Domino’s. Everyday was a 24-hour headache, and I stayed so congested I didn’t breathe through my nose from August until May of that year. I didn’t care. I was leaning into it.
When the video was finished I would watch it several times a day. And sob.
By April that year I had started getting out of my bathrobe and dressing again. My daughter had a last minute acceptance to a college she really wanted to attend so we had a lot of chaotic energy with that which also helped to distract me from what was lurking.
What if at Graduation I collapse from crying? Embarrass my whole family?
And I was so scared of the emotion I was going to feel leaving her at her college dorm.
What if I fell apart?
What if they had to physically pull me off of her?
What if I couldn’t do it?
I kept saying to myself, “just lean into it, it’s just an emotion you’ve never felt before.”
Now—let me clarify. My daughter was going to a college 30 minutes away from home. But I can tell you to a mother who was a basket case like I was, it didn’t matter where she was going.
Graduation was fine. Proud. Exciting. I didn’t even shed a tear because I had none left.
College move-in day was awkward. My daughter and I both felt the pressure of the goodbye coming all day, and it was making us a little short on patience as we put together her futon and unpacked her.
I heard “Mom, just let me do it.” And I knew that was my cue.
It was time to say our goodbyes and leave her there.
Hugging at the curb is a rite of passage for parents when they leave their kids at college. They walk you out, you hug, and you watch them get smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror until they look like a toddler again, and you turn the corner. And promptly fall apart.
Just like the love you felt when you first held them as a newborn, their absence in that second is immediate.
I relive all this not to be sappy, but for the moms who have been faking that smile while their kid is so excited about leaving home or think they are the only ones who have spent the last few months secretly slobbering into their bathrobes.
You are not.
It’s a passage of time. The end of an era. It hurts. But don’t swallow down your emotions right now. Let yourself feel every bit of it. After all you’ve put into this child, haven’t you earned the right to feel and process the emotions that come with letting them go? And it’s true, it’s all emotion you’ve never felt before which is rare because by the time you’re our age you think you’ve felt it all, but really… thank God we haven’t.
And a few days after you drop them off, when you get that first text message from them that reads “everything’s great!” it’s a bittersweet nod to the fact that when they go they aren’t supposed to be ready.
And neither are you.
Just lean into it.
Congratulations to all the graduates and all the mamas who survive it.
Now go get a tissue.