Like millions of parents across America this fall, my kid has gone off to college.
I'm happy for her.
My heart feels like a lump of clay.
A week before my daughter left, we went to Target together. She perused the aisles quickly, expertly for things she'd need. Ibuprofen, soap, shampoo, a shower cap -- this one, mom? She'd say. Or should I buy the other brand? I was a fountain of rushed information as I tried to give her every tip I've ever learned the hard way so that she wouldn't have to. Buy generic medicine but don't buy generic laundry soap! You need ten pairs of undies in case you don't get to your laundry! Never skimp on sheets or shoes! Wear sunscreen under your makeup! Wash your face every night! Have a buddy system with your roommates! I trotted behind my leggy, excited daughter as she tossed things in the basket carelessly. With every aisle, I felt I was running out of time to tell her every single thing she'd need to know so that she wouldn't ever be inconvenienced, hungry, stuck, hurt, embarrassed, broke or scared. Go on the meal plan, honey, so you don't have to worry about cooking! My daughter stopped. Mom. I'll be fine.
My daughter's childhood is officially over. No more nagging her to pick up her socks. No more following behind her beverage choices, washing glasses and tossing out cans. Those days are behind us now, as she tilts into adulthood in a large city, far from California, where she knows no one except new roommates.
I know she'll be all right. We raised her well, my ex-husband and I. I've already received, in this age of texting, several texts that vary from how angry a roommate just made her to how AWESOME her dorm room is. She's grown exponentially in the past week that she's been gone. I doubt her roommates pick up her socks.
My daughter is very fortunate; she is attending a very well-respected art school in a very beautiful city. She has her own bedroom, in her suite/dorm room. She has a checking account and a budget, that dad sees to. She has new clothes, new shoes and a new backpack. When I was her age, my family couldn't afford this experience so instead, I went to Junior College and worked full time at the age of 18. To say that I am grateful that my daughter has the financial freedom and support to have this experience is a huge understatement. I am ecstatic. It's like having a second chance through my offspring.
I used to say to new parents (obnoxiously, I'm sure) that there are two pillars of parenthood that you couldn't imagine until you've had a child: guilt and worry. Guilt, worry, worry, guilt, like a dharma wheel from hell.
But there's a third pillar, much smaller, way in the back, that most parents would never admit to: jealousy.
It started when she was younger. Leggy and tall at the age of 15, my daughter began to receive very appreciative looks from passersby. At first, I felt ferociously protective -- don't you DARE, pal! This is a little girl! My daughter became aware of the looks and of her increasing beauty little by little and as she did, I had to let go and allow her beauty to blossom. I was proud of her. And yet -- side by side, walking with my daughter, men didn't look at me -- I was invisible.
In Our Idiot Brother, a fine film with beautifully written characters, only one character is two-dimensional. The mother of the brood. She looks to be in her late 50s or early 60s. While the rest of the clan is variously funny, dysfunctional, witty and articulate, mom carries around a glass of white wine, smiles and suggest that the family plays charades. She is benign, she is unaware, she has no life. In one scene, she tells her son (Paul Rudd) that tomorrow, she has to go buy a button. I drink white wine! Regularly! Am I that mindless mother? The one that younger people laugh about? Shush now, I mother myself, don't be ridiculous.
And yet -- there it is: my daughter doesn't need me and men aren't interested in a pushing-50 divorcee. I live and work in Hollywood, the ground zero of youth culture. To be a woman over 40 in this town is to be non-existent. Thus the through-the-roof sales of Botox and plastic surgery. Any desperate measure to matter and to be seen. We've all seen women too old to dress the way they do. And it's doubly depressing when you get why they do it and yet gaze upon the dismaying result that affirms that youth is the lucre of this land.
So I am jealous. There, I said it. Because my daughter has the one thing I can never have back -- youth. She and I are on a teeter-totter. Up she goes, look at her! It's her turn! I watch her rise and my stomach lifts, slightly, as I feel my descent on the other end. I look down and the ground is growing closer.
I get another text from my daughter -- the guys across the hall are AWESOME! I smile. I'm glad she's having fun.
I lost my brother a little over a year ago. Surely, death makes one very aware of the fleeting quality of life. And it fleets faster, the older you get. My dad's already had two small strokes. Will mom be widowed? When? Who is going to take care of her? Somebody stop the presses -- where is time going?! I feel a little panicky.
When I think about it, I wouldn't go back to being 18 years old for all the tea in China, as mom used to say. Oh the Sturm und Drang! The self-consciousness, awkwardness and overwhelming feelings of love! Hurt! Anger! I was once beautiful and leggy too, but like so many young women, I relied upon men to make me feel that I was okay, that I was valued and valuable. More than one boyfriend broke my heart with his rejection of me, leaving me to pick up the pieces, glue them back together and discover, very slowly, that men are not the measure of my worth.
Ah, youth. What an exciting landscape of possibilities and adventure. What a minefield of emotions and missteps. Youth is wasted on the young, as Shaw said. Boy, was he right.
I try to remember that I am one of the most significant role models in my daughter's life. I have modeled for her what is scary and what is not. I have modeled joy and optimism and risk-taking. She looks to me, even now, to see if everything is really okay. And as down as I get about all this -- this aging, this time passing thing -- I think about how I would have my daughter feel when she's pushing 50. Irrelevant? Unseen? Riding a moving sidewalk towards death? Or ripe with focus and passion, powerful with self-confidence learned and earned over the years, comfortable in her own skin.
In four months, I am moving to the Middle East to become involved with the peace process there, working in the non-profit world. I am terrified. Oh how I wish my only problems were my roommates and boys.
People ask me -- moving? To the Middle East? How do your kids feel about that? Well, they'll miss me. They're a bit worried. But to me, this comes at a good time. As my kids are ascending, exploring and becoming independent, their mom, their over-40 mom, is also ascending into a new chapter too. And she is armed with the self-confidence, perspective and wisdom that is both inspired by and to inspire her two children; she is living the life less ordinary and more fulfilled. And yes, she'd like a glass of white wine with that.
Follow Julie Gray on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Julie_Gray