07/30/2012 01:31 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2012

Bye Bye Baby -- Seeing a Child Off to College

Starting next month, approximately six million young adults will be heading off to their freshman year at college.

To look at it another way, about six million American mothers will be in some stage of meltdown. (Tip: this is a good moment to invest in Inglenook, Gallo or Sutter Home.)

If you're a mother with a teenager starting college in September, I feel your pain. I've been through it -- twice.

Everyone realizes that beginning of college is a major rite of passage. Yet, not many acknowledge that for mothers, this separation is an infinitely complex emotional process that can be summed up in two words: Letting go. Perhaps not since moms were told "Push! Now!" have they handed such an intense challenge.

And what exactly is that challenge? To loosen the maternal grip and say "see you soon" -- then let them walk away calmly. Kids this age seem older and more mature than ever. But don't be fooled by the tattoo, full beard, or platform pumps: they're still unsure about themselves and need their parents to be a supportive presence, but from a comfortable distance. In your face, you reflect a child back to himself -- even at this age. If your kid looks at you and sees a flood of tears, the message is: "This is a sorrowful and frightening moment."

Especially if it's the last child out of the nest, the parting signals an intense change for a mother, who will find her identify and role redefined. Emotions can swirl: joy for the child, relief at having no (or one less) adolescent to rouse from bed in the morning, and the pain of loss.

Mother, heal thyself. It's a time of transition.

Be open to exploring a new phase of a relationship with your child.

Listen to your child and know when to separate, when to let her make her own mistakes, and when to intervene.

If you have an independent adolescent who is ready to leave home -- you get an "A" in mothering. This is exactly the goal.

That said, that pain is real, and you have every right to cry, but when your kid looks back a last time before walking into that dorm... smile.