THE BLOG
12/29/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

How I Survived My Son Leaving (Me) for College

Michelle Martin

As I prepare once again for the departure of my son for college, I find myself reflecting on the gut-wrenching experience of taking him to college the first time about a year ago. The close relationship I have with my son was one reason why empty nesting was such a devastating experience for me. I honestly did not know who I was without him in my daily life, and I wasn't very eager to find out. Even though I always worked, empty-nesting after spending nearly two decades immersed in raising my son filled me with dread and terror.

I did everything I could to prepare for his eventual departure, including going to counseling as a pre-emptive measure against feeling so much pain. One day when I was sitting in my counselor's office, she asked me to describe my feelings about him leaving. "Post-apocalyptic," I said without pause. "It feels like darkness. Gloominess. Like Russia-in-winter gloominess." She told me that it would take about one year to adjust. "I don't have that kind of time," I responded." And then I asked for a list of things I could do to speed up the process.

When I drove my son to college last year, I was in a daze. I remember very little about that trip except some intermittent tears (mine) and a whole lot of excitement (his). The college drop-off went by in a whir -- dorm set-up, a quick dinner and that was it. While I remember little of that day, I do remember the drive home with excruciating clarity. The drive was very long, made even longer by the fact that I had to drive through Nebraska (sorry, Nebraska folks, but your state is stupefyingly giant). I was emotional and couldn't stop the rush of tears or the voices in my head that reminded me of how my tiny family of two had just shrunk to one. It was official, I was completely alone. My son was going to skip off into his future, and I'd be lucky if he even remembered my name. I was downright pathetic.

My plan was to drive as far as I could manage that first night and stop at a nice hotel off the highway. I made it as far as North Platte, Nebraska, and was surprised when just about every hotel was booked. I finally found a room at a major highway chain at about 1:00 a.m., grabbed a change of clothes and shuffled into the lobby. I stood like a tear-stained zombie at the front desk and was greeted by a lovely older Nebraskan woman who spoke with a Fargo-like lilt in her voice. In the middle of the check-in process she noticed my emotional state. "What's wrong, dear?" she asked with genuine concern. I started explaining that I just dropped my one and only child off at college and the tears started flowing again.

"I'm going to do something special for you. I'm going to upgrade you to the honeymoon suite!" At first I wasn't sure I heard her correctly -- the honeymoon suite? You mean where couples who are in love stay and have sex? Clearly, she could see that I was alone, and that I wasn't wearing a wedding ring. In fact, I clearly remembered telling her that I was a single mom dropping my one and only son off at college, didn't I? "No, no -- that's okay. Really, just a normal room is great," I said with pleading and desperate eyes. "No, I'm going to do this for you -- you deserve something nice. Yooo can take a nice hawt jacooozzee. That will be good for you, honey."

I wanted to die, right there. D.I.E.

Since she wouldn't take no for an answer, I decided to take my lumps and accept the room. That was before I saw it -- before I saw the all the pink, before I saw all the lace, before I saw all the photos of embracing couples, the murky jacuzzi sitting in the middle of the room, and all that gold-lamé. I was in empty-nesting hell.

I pondered sleeping in my car that night, but then decided to just suck it up and make do. I washed my face and peeled back one corner of the giant king-sized lace-adorned comforter, imagining how unlikely it was that something so frilly would get washed before each new check-in. I then curled into the smallest ball I could and tried to sleep. I was awakened a few hours later by my neighbors who, at 5 a.m. decided to give the jacuzzi a whirl. Amidst all of their moaning and groaning, I wondered for the first time who in the hell would spend their honeymoon night at a roadside "hotel" in North Platte, Nebraska (again, no offense Nebraska folks, but really!).

The drive home was noticeably longer than the drive there and the only things I had to entertain myself were the deeply disturbing thoughts in my head -- of a future life spent alone, in the dark, with 10 (or more) cats. I don't remember pulling into the driveway, and I don't remember dragging my things into my house, but I do remember standing in the middle of my living room thinking, "I cannot live here anymore; I'll die. D.I.E. die." I wanted to run, to move far away, to escape. I wanted to get on a plane and just go somewhere -- anywhere where I was a different person, with a different life, without pain. I told myself all sorts of things about how other people had it worse, and how I needed to get my act together and stop feeling sorry for myself. For god's sakes, I was in the middle of writing a dissertation on the Rwandan genocide -- I certainly knew better than to indulge my weaker side. But indulge I did, again and again and again.

Fast-forward one-and-a-half years later and I'm okay with him going back to school. I mean sure, I'll miss him, but being on this side of the empty-nesting process I can now see that a child leaving for college isn't a death (even though it felt like it), semesters don't last forever, and kids do come home again (sooner than you might expect).

Empty nesting is a process that can't be rushed. And as much as I refused to believe this, it did take about one year for me to adapt to my post-child life, to see hope at the end of the very long tunnel of darkness, and to imagine a life of happiness without a child at home. I'm still in a transitional stage, but I'm happy to report that empty-nesting is survivable, and life goes on, and good things will come in and fill the vacuum, if we let them.