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Sarah Buttenwieser Headshot

Trying to Imagine the Boy's Flight

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Many years ago, I spoke as an alumn and trustee to incoming students at Hampshire College during their convocation program. At the picnic that followed, I chatted with parents of first-year students. They wore worried, proud, sad expressions on their faces. Their eyes appeared glassy, tears barely contained. I felt teary. I related. That is, I thought I related. My one -- at that point, only -- child was barely a toddler and I shuddered to imagine not knowing what he was doing by the hour. The notion that I would drop him off to college at some far into the future date seemed completely ludicrous at best.

But here he is a junior in high school (in two weeks). I have close friends who've delivered their kids to dorm rooms laden with cherished belongings and stifled tears and sucked in breaths and left their kids at college and come back home to deflated nests. My neighbor's son is the first in our tiny neck of the 'hood to launch and her next son and mine will follow suit together, so Louis' departure is like the fall of the first domino. The ping resonated immediately and the street feels emptier.

I called Louis' mom the day he left. She said, "It feels the way I felt just before he was born when we were comfortable and cozy and knew what to do. The baby, that was kind of a shocker. We had to learn what to do outside the cozy nest of the womb. I don't know what to do now, either." She added that the fact he's just an easy hour-and-a-half down the highway helps. "In a pinch, I feel as if I could even walk there," she said.

Suddenly, although I can't really remember a thing about where they lived or what their children wanted to study at Hampshire, I remember the emptied out but achingly full expressions on those parents that early September day, sky impossibly blue, when my baby was a toddler. I realize it's how the not knowing translates into an inability to do.

Back then, my son went to a toddler program three half-days a week and every nap, snack and tussle over a toy was noted on a spread sheet. When I picked him up, the teachers shared what toys he liked or what phrase he uttered. Even when I wasn't there, it felt as if I was. Rolling into the Facebook era, we can often glimpse our kids even when we're not together. It's not at all unusual for me to email a friend a photo when our kids are playing together. See? Everything's okay and you don't have to let go, not really.

I tell myself that the two weeks my third son has spent at a ramshackle Quaker farm camp the past three summers unplugged from the world -- even me -- is training ground for my emptying nest. He hastened my de-helicopterization process when he first left for camp at age 7. This camp does not post photos on the Internet nor can you call or email. You write letters. The kids are required to write home once a week. The first year his letters averaged one-and-a-half lines apiece. The very first letter home read: Dear Mama, I miss you. The swimming is not the best. P.S. I miss PaPa, too. Love, Remy

This summer I got a whopping five pieces of information in his two letters: 1) camp is fun -- and "still fun," 2) something got jammed, the actual body part -- I'm guessing finger or toe -- was missing, 3) swimming test passed, 4) Zohar wasn't at camp because his family is moving to the States, 5) Max got 6 stitches.

There's no question in my mind the old-fashioned -- very scant -- letter-a-week is good for me. The point is this: I am not supposed to know everything about my children's lives. Their lives are theirs, not mine.

Much as I felt I mastered the camp experience this summer, I revert to terror when I think about college. However foreign it was at first to care for that baby fresh out of the womb, it felt natural pretty quickly. I acquiesced almost instantly to worry and to wonder. Even as I began to let go, the risk of falling or failing -- taking risks -- that felt unnatural. I don't really want to let go and simply see what happens. I'm backed up by a cultural moment we could dub anxiety-meets-over-connectivity. Surrounded by the attachment parent sling-wearers, video baby monitors, push bars on tricycles and the elementary school kids with cell phones, to hover is to parent. The idea of radio silence, that seems like a deafening quiet.

As I watch my two years' ahead parent friends with breath sucked in, eyes saucer wide, trying, just trying to imagine the moment I encourage my first tiny bird to flap his wings into the bigger world, I have to sit with the fact that I can't do it, not yet. However, I plan to practice as much as I can over the next two years. I think I may write him letters when he goes.

Check out my blog, Standing in the Shadows