11/21/2011 10:38 am ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

A Child Left for College, a Young Woman Returns for Thanksgiving

When I was a child, my parents played a cloying song with the lyrics, "Where are you goin' my little one, little one? Where are you goin' my baby, my own? Turn around and you're two, Turn around and you're four, Turn around and you're a young girl going out the door." I get it now. My little one, now on the verge of nineteen, left for college in September. Now, as we prepare for her to return home for Thanksgiving, I must be feeling the same emotions my parents did so long ago: How did she grow into a woman so fast?

The same mechanism which casts a fog over the pain of childbirth has worked a similar magic with her childhood. Forgotten are the grocery store temper tantrums, the nights spent cradling my feverish child, the day she told me I knew nothing about anything. Instead I am left with such lovely memories of picnics and school plays and bath time and cuddles. It's as though her childhood were filmed by Hallmark, but at a faster speed, and then airbrushed.

So how has it been without her for the first time in 18 years? Easier than I thought it would be, frankly. I appreciate that I can return home from work, tired and cranky, and just lie on the couch for a little while reading the mail. I don't trip over her shoes or her discarded books, and I can eat soup out of a can for dinner if I want to. The dishwasher and garbage can take almost an entire week to fill; I do laundry weekly. And I have been able to tell my cleaning people that they should come much less frequently. I read entire books uninterrupted, lots of them. I play Adele at top volume in the mornings while I get dressed. I go out with friends often, without worrying about what time I need to be home, and sometimes I have a glass of wine. Perhaps best of all, I pass by the high school and its harried line of carpooling parents with a sigh of relief.

On the other hand, I miss her daily presence in my life. Sometimes it's a palpable ache. Other days, it's a nagging sense that something important is missing. She filled all the quiet places for so long -- by turns entertaining and infuriating -- but full of life and demands and love. She gave my days purpose and structure. Her laugh may well be the most uplifting sound I've ever heard. The incessant knocks on our front door, followed by various teenagers rooting through the refrigerator, was more of a joy than an intrusion. Our house pulsed with activity from her infancy through prom. And now it's quiet.

But Thanksgiving approaches, and shortly after that is winter break. My child is returning home, for a while, and I'm giddy with excitement. I know she's changed, mostly by her Facebook postings which often appear between the hours of dusk and dawn. She's doing all the things you're supposed to do when you go to college -- some of which are healthier than others. So the daughter who returns won't be the same as the one who left, but I'm not the same, either. I'm guessing that each time she returns we will have to get to know one another yet again, relieved at the familiar and surprised by the changes.

I've always viewed motherhood as a series of tiny losses, as my child mastered the world and moved away from me baby step by baby step. It's just that I didn't realize until lately that those losses also move me closer to reinventing my own life and place in the world. I'll always be Hannah's mom and hopefully she will always need at least a little mothering. But as my child turns around and around, I am tentatively stepping back into a world where I, too, can explore and evolve and turn around.