Friday, June 11, 2010

Commencement 2010: Launch for Grads, Loss for Mom

I got teary-eyed in the Dollar Store today, crouched at the 2/$1.00 Graduation Cards rack.  We have two children graduating, one from college and our "baby" from high school, and when I see the mortarboards and diplomas, the globes signifying the world is theirs, I just lose it.

Our eldest daughter has already marched to to the podium twice, and now attends graduate school in New York City.  That means my husband and I now earn a peculiar status: "empty-nesters."

"Empty" acknowledges a change that is, no matter how you slice it, sad, especially for the mom.  The brain-diagram of even busy, working mothers shows a large chunk devoted to personal activities, but a larger chunk to the schlepping, scheduling, keeping track-of, laundering, picking up-after, sports, lessons, caretakers and performance of her children.  Then there's the emotional chunk that enlarges it.

So, when the last child is gone, it's not just an adjustment--though that, too--it's a loss.  Grocery shopping becomes a different experience when you include picky children--along in the cart, and later, with their food eccentricities and desires in mind.  My son eats three pounds (!) of pasta per week, with one particular type of sauce, and mozzarella cheese, for nearly every meal.  He likes three types of cereal, drinks a gallon of milk over a few days, likes only strawberry jam on his Eggo waffles-and-peanut butter, wants one of three types of soup served for our Sabbath dinners...  All this synapse action in my mind will cease.

It's replaced with worry. Several years ago I wrote a book about happy American families. I won't forget what a Mexican-American father of four young adults said in wistful reflection: "There's no feeling of peace like knowing your kids are all sleeping safely in your home in their own beds."

Consoling friends try to soothe me.  "They'll come back!"  Nice try.  Once they leave home, they're gone.

Sometimes they're physically here, but only as fleeting guests and visitors. Unless there's a financial crisis or something goes wrong, they'll never again consider their parents' their "permanent address."  When my middle child moved into her sorority, she denuded her room of her posters, souvenirs and bulletin board photos, leaving an anonymous shell she uses for Sabbath touch-downs when I "get to" do her laundry.  Our first daughter keeps her room as a museum to her high school self.  Occasionally, she'll fly home, live out of her suitcase, and leave only her unnmade bed as evidence. Her unneeded books, pix of smiling groups of friends, trinkets and old clothes remain as dust-collecting testimony to her absence.

Last summer, we bought our high-school-graduating son a cool new teen bedroom set. Grasping at straws.  His room is just the way he wants it, with his guitars and ukuleles and amplifiers and posters of tropical beach scenes. Every morning when I come in to waken him for school, I'm intensely aware that few opportunities to see his sleeping face on his pillow at home remain.  Today was his last day of high school.

Before he left, I made him pose for photos in our back yard.  I have the one I took when he went off to his first day of preschool, in his little overalls with his truck lunchbox. In today's photo he carried his computer under his arm and his lunch in a small paper bag.  No more shifting my schedule to pick him up from school.

Those same consoling friends say "But you raised them to go off and be independent!  That's what you want!"  Well, that was supposed to be far off in the future.  Because I like doing all those kid-centric things, like volunteering in the classroom, reading to them, crafts and homework and buying school supplies.  When you're doing all these things with and for your children, there's a special pleasure and connection and pride.  I love hearing them sing. I love when they dance and ask for help and get bored enough to play Boggle with me.  I like knowing they're here at home.

No matter what those well-meaning consoling friends say, when the last child leaves, Mom loses a big focus--and a big pleasure--in her (my) life.  There's plenty to do to fill the time and attention, but all those re-inventions and accomplishments will never be centered around the needs of my own kids.

Then there's the hopeful, "but it gets even better with grandchildren!"  Don't go there.  In my mind, "grandmother" translates into "old."  I do not embrace aging.  Denial isn't just a river in Africa.

So when I hear--or even think about--those measured notes of Pomp and Circumstance, I dissolve.  I wish the graduates of 2010, and especially my daughter and son, pride in achievement, happiness in accomplishment, and fulfillment of all the opportunity those greeting card vignettes of diplomas and mortarboards and world-globes imply.  Just hand me a kleenex, because I hate to see this era end.


  1. Good post- so not looking forward to the year 2025 when my little one will be graduating! BTW, I met your daughter today at Brianna's (my husband's cousin) graduation party- she seems like such a nice girl!

  2. Yes, I was told the same things when my "baby" left 3 years ago to join his bro, who had departed 5 years prior. I ignored what they told me. I cried. I wallowed. The quilt of our family was torn. I felt bereft of that so-familiar context of being Mom who nurtured/understood/commiserated/comforted, was always there to give advice & counsel, sometimes not taken but who cared in different ways than did dad. And I couldn't believe those who said "You should be HAPPY for them", as if I weren't! Sure, my life was otherwise full, productive, busy, but not in the same way. When my oldest returned home the first time after he left, we BOTH immediately saw that it would never be the same ever again. New roles, different goals, altered directions, positive & negative, unresolved uncertainties - all you can do is count your blessings & be grateful that they return with excited stories along with their dirty laundry, more questions, railing at life being so unfair, hungry for your love and your challah, knowing they have your eternal support for their inevitable lapses in judgment, confident that you will be the first to celebrate their victories. Go ahead and cry, fret, worry, be sad - I'm right there with you. They grow up, they grow away - just as we did, and see how great we turned out to be? :o) We adjust, we accept, we go shopping at Dollar Tree. That's life. But, gollee, why does it have to happen so dang fast???

  3. Well done, good and faithful mother.

  4. Thank you, Bethany, we are indeed proud of our daughter(s)! And thank you DoubleTee and Ruth Anne for the commiseration.

    We got through our daughter's graduation party; Wednesday is our boy's graduation and then HIS party, and then...dum, dum, being on a precipice realizing there's nowhere to go but...well, somewhere uncomfortably DIFFERENT.

  5. 失去金錢的人,失去很多;失去朋友的人,失去更多;失去信心的人,失去所有。..................................................................

  6. Were you crying when you wrote this? Because I'm crying as I read (and relive) it. Aargh. {{{{{Hugs}}}}} along with some mutual wallowing in the different - but not joyless - life. I miss my children being at home, needing my attention. I get to cook and clean up for our son, home for the summer, taking full advantage of everything I will do for him so willingly. Haha....

  7. When I told you at a booksigning that I read your blog all the time and you asked if I left comments all I could say was "no". The reason? I didn't want to set up an account to do so.(I don't have Facebook yet, either.)But your blog made me want to comment, so here goes. I can so relate to what you are going through. When our older daughter went off to college in CA, my husand and I cried on and off all the way down and all the way back. When our younger daughter went off to college in Portland, I didn't cry as much-I think I was still numb. That year I went from part time to full time and that did help some. But the worst time for me was last Nov. Our older daughter had gotten a job in her actual field (journalism) and she and my husband packed up the truck for the move to Iowa. ! Everyone was here for Thanksgiving, but the truck left the day after. That was really hard to watch them go, with the weather being an added stress. Then on Sunday afternoon, my younger daughter's friends stopped by to take her back down to Portland and I had to wave goodbye and go back in the house-all by myself.That was probably the longest I ever cried about this.It seemed so final.And my younger daughter isn't coming home for the summer because of summer school.Just some short visits.I keep thinking I will figure out my plans for life after kids, but so far, no.:-)My daughters think I am sentimental, too.I didn't understand what my mom went through, either. Now I do. My prayers are with you.