THE BLOG

Sweetie's Empty Nest

08/20/2013 09:13 am ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013
Candy Schulman

After her college acceptance, my daughter developed a case of incurable senioritis. Instead of spending all weekend in PJs studying for AP classes and SAT's, she goes out with friends to parties, even coming home after midnight on a school night.

"It's awfully late," I protest.

"Mom." Those rolling eyes, the ones I perfected before leaving for college. "I'm a senior now."

Left alone, my husband and I no longer revolve around her schedule and begin to enjoy late lunches out and evenings in museums. But our rediscovery is another adventure we won't fully understand until August. Last August, on a college tour, I cried alongside sniveling, disconsolate moms on freshman departure day -- even though I had an entire year before I'd have to really let go. Soon it will be my turn.

I can't think about August. Instead I sublimate by shopping online. My daughter and I pick out a quilt and XL dorm sheets. I purchase socks in every length and thickness, putting them into her "college pile."

"Why do I need so many pairs of socks?" she asks.

"Socks get eaten in laundry machines," I say. "And I know you won't do your laundry often enough."

"Stop annoying me," she says.

How do you stop annoying, also known as mothering, a daughter you've loved for 18 years? The one you affectionately called "sweetie?" The one you dressed in cute toddler jean jackets, cheered at every soccer game, bought chocolates for Valentine's Day? How do you ever get used to the empty seat at the dinner table once she's gone?

What will we talk about? How we've loved our daughter for nearly two decades and now she's gone? Will she make friends? Adore her classes? Fall in love with a young man I've never met... and maybe never will?

***

"You'd better not cry in public when I leave for college," my daughter warns after I humiliate her with wads of tissues at high school graduation.

"I won't," I promise, nearly in tears just thinking about it. Will my book club turn into an empty-nest bereavement support group?

The closer August comes, the sassier my sweetie becomes. My daughter has never been particularly rebellious, and even grants me an occasional bear hug when we pass in the hallway, saying, "I love you so much!"

Suddenly she begins to keep her bedroom door closed. I knock before entering, but now she says, "Stop bothering me."

Enough to make a mother cry. A friend describes the first time her older son called home from college, how she started weeping just hearing the sound of his voice. "What's wrong?" he asked, alarmed. She didn't want him to know how much she missed him, so she said, "I... I... I don't know how to use the DVD remote!" which was also true. After telling her to calm down, he guided her through long distance Remote Education.

I have two months to learn how to use the remote.

***

Occasionally she re-opens her bedroom door to invite me back into her world. She and I lay toe-to-toe on her candy-striped bedspread that is already looking childlike for an almost college co-ed. A poster of Darren Criss juxtaposes a framed photograph of a dreamy 3-year-old in a lavender tutu. She wishes I'd take the photo down already, as her current identity is five inch heels and spandex black skirts, but she allows that slice of childhood to remain on the wall. For me.

"I'm so excited about college!" she says. "But I don't think I'll take Puppy with me."

The stuffed golden retriever she slept with every night for a decade. The "lovey" she seemed to worship more than me at times. Old and frail, Puppy would not survive frat parties.

"My mother told me that college would be the best years of my life," I say. This turned out to be only partly true, but I don't tell her that.

Her phone beeps, and she furiously texts whoever it is.

"I wish it was August already," she says, looking up from her phone.

I don't. "Me too," I say. "I'm glad you're so happy."

"How long do you think I'll be homesick for? Will it last longer than freshman year?"

I remind her that when she went to France on an exchange program in ninth grade, she was homesick for two days. Now she's older. And only a three-hour train ride from home.

"Not that I want you to come home often," I lie. If that were the case, I wouldn't have bought her the student discount Amtrak card. I need to be careful not to tell her how much I will really miss her. She needs to separate, and so do I.

"You're going to cry when I leave," she says.

"No," I insist in mock jest. "I'm going to party! Go to dance clubs!"

"Mom, you're too old for clubs."

"Then I'll go to the movies every night -- the ones with subtitles where you say only 'old' people go. I'll eat fish for dinner every night! Or not cook at all."

"You're going to cry," she says. And although she doesn't say it, I know what she's thinking: She will too.

Her phone again. Fingers tapping furiously on her phone. Her friend is on an audition for a college drama program. She is reassuring her that she'll do well.

I get up to leave.

"Don't go yet," she says, pushing aside her phone, her lifeline. Puppy was her first true childhood love, but her cell phone is her teenage heart throb. "Remember how we used to play Best and Worst?"

When she was in grade school, every night before she went to bed, we'd each recite our Best and Worst moments of the day to each other. "Emily didn't sit next to me at lunch today!"... "I got a 98 on a spelling test!" We cherished these bedtime exchanges, and then, one day, she just outgrew it.

"My best..." she begins. "My best is knowing I'm accepted to my first choice college and I don't have to feel pressured anymore." Another pause. "My worst: I'm afraid of being homesick."

Sometimes I think she's had it too easy, and that's why she gets homesick. She went to good schools and always had clean underwear (why does it always come down to underwear?). She doesn't have a mother who sees the 98 on the spelling test and demands, "What happened to the other two points?"

"You have time to work out the homesickness," I assure her. "You'll be older and more mature by the time you leave."

My worst: Knowing our time together is running short.

My best: Knowing we still have time... we still have time.