Senior Editor, Protocol
I am trying to buy the plane tickets.
I have three billion and twelve Chrome tabs open and I keep clicking through them to find the best ticket price or the best times of day to fly or the smallest number of stops or the optimal number of airline miles I can use. I am convinced that if I keep opening more tabs and entering the specifics into more cheap flight aggregator websites that eventually I will find the result that will tell me that I do not, in fact, have to fly my daughter to college across the country in the Fall. Are your dates flexible, the website asks me, with a sly presumption of which only corporate websites are capable. Are your dates flexible? Could we put off this going to college thing for a week or ten years?
I am pre-grieving. She’s still here, but she’ll be leaving in September. I have to find flights for her and for me too and hotel rooms and I have to plan a trip right after I drop her off because that’s what people say you are supposed to do in order to survive the grief of your child leaving home.
I am a “that’s what people say I’m supposed to do” kind of woman, a rule follower, a consummate advice taker. It’s only parenting her that has allowed me a tiny respite from this subjugation, learning early on that the baby advice books were almost entirely bullshit. I did what felt right parenting her, following some of the rules that made sense, but mostly winging it and pretending to know what I was doing. But this self-care advice about distracting myself right after delivering her to college seems about right. I’ll take it.
I am pre-grieving. She’s still here, but she’ll be leaving in September.
I will deliver her to college, just as I delivered her into this world eighteen years ago. Maybe now, like then, she’ll be a week late and they’ll have to cut her right out of me. Drop off weekend is Labor Day. Labor and delivery day. It is a curse to think about words as much as I do.
The other advice I’ve been given is to “name the grief.” That advice came from Twitter, from a former co-worker who has a baby who is not even yet two years old. I overshared and exploded my pre-grief in a tweet and this person responded that naming what I was feeling would help. This mother has just started the journey of raising a daughter only so that she can pack up and leave her after eighteen years of her hard work. How does this mother already know how to do it and I don’t?
But I do know how to do it. I do know how to name the grief, the loss. We all know it after this year of losing people and events and things and a sense of ourselves. We know it. And we can name it if we let ourselves.
It is grief. Or pre-grief. Because my daughter is still here and I still need to book plane tickets. Last time I checked the Chrome tabs, all the prices had gone up.
I was a person before I became a mother. I have photographs and video and other official documentation that proves this. But sometimes, most of the time, it doesn’t feel this way. It feels like I was born when she was born in 2003. I was gestating for those nine months that she was gestating.
The early years were so hard — the crying and the pooping and the figuring out how to go back to work after the paltry maternity leave doled out by the State of California. They called it disability pay. I was unable to perform my duties as a worker because I had a new and more important and decidedly unpaid job to keep a human alive, to feed her from my body, to swaddle her and hold her tight and make her feel secure in this scary, awful, not two years from 9/11 world.
And did I? Did I make her feel secure? Or worse, did I make her feel too secure? Was I a helicopter or a benign neglector? My parents were seventies parents and I turned out OK (despite this inability to book the plane tickets).
I often dream about the coolness of my seventies mom, wearing a bikini and holding me on her hip while she smoked a cigarette in the backyard of our Connecticut home. Did she miss her life in New York City or was she happy to have landed there with two kids and a pool and a bearded husband, not even going grey yet, who still took the train to the city for his job as a Manhattan ad man?
Did she remember that she was a person before she had children? In high school, she played field hockey and always smiled with closed lips because she had a gap in the middle of her two front teeth that she later got fixed. She was a person. I was a person. Women are all just people before they become mothers. But sometimes we forget.
I am not that two-year-old on my mother’s hip, inhaling her secondhand cigarette smoke before anyone knew that was one of the more dangerous things for a two-year-old to be inhaling. As it turns out, the most dangerous thing for a human to inhale is the baby scent of their child’s soft newborn head. Because once you get a whiff of that, my friends, you are done for. You will love this child with all your heart no matter how often she refuses to take a nap when you have work deadlines or begs to be signed up for soccer and then quits after one practice or hides a laptop in her bedroom so she can stay up all night for a week streaming entire seasons of Glee. You will love her when she’s very mean to you, looking at you with those eyes that say that every single thing you do is totally exhausting. You will still love her. You will love her when she lies to you and does unhealthy things to her body and soul even though you did everything those books tell you to do to keep her from doing those things. You will love her when she passes through that phase and stops doing the dangerous stuff she did to her body and soul and you will hate yourself a little for thinking that she was never going to get out of that phase and you’d be, I don’t know, visiting her in jail, or worse. But you’d still love her because loving her is the easiest thing about parenting because you got that whiff. Because you inhaled. And then she turns eighteen and goes to college and it feels like a death. And everyone is implying that you should get over it. Get your shit together. This is what’s supposed to happen. Only the mom on Twitter with the not-yet two-year-old can understand. Name the grief, she says. All right. I’ll name it. It’s grief.
When my daughter goes to college in the Fall, we will not live in an empty nest. We have two more kids, twins, sixteen years old, here with us for the next two years, and maybe more, if we’re being honest. Surely I will be irreparably damaging them in some way by moping around the house mooning for the one who is gone, when they are still here. “We’re still here, mom.” But are they? The real truth is that they’re already gone too. They won’t even notice the mooning. They only need me to drive them places and that need is about to expire too, as soon as they get their driver’s licenses. Then they’ll just need to borrow the car and I have no excuse not to let them because I am at home, busy with the aforementioned mooning.
There’s a teenage pop star who sings about getting her driver’s license. And everyone looks at that as a sign that she’s impossibly young, this very popular singer. She’s rich and famous. She’s hit her absolute zenith and she’s only just barely old enough to get her driver’s license. But to me, the driver’s license is the sign of an almost-adult.
These kids whose whole entire world was once ME, now look at the current me and say, “bye” and then they’re gone down the driveway and I thought I’d feel relief that they didn’t need me to drive them anywhere anymore, but instead I feel a grief as heavy and mysterious as the moon.
I can’t seem to book those flights to New York to drop her off at school in September. New York never seemed as far away as it does to me now. And so sometimes in my darker moments, I worry that she must be fleeing something because there are so many perfectly good schools in California and Oregon and New Mexico and other places not as far away as New York.
In 1980 my dad got a job in Dallas and our family moved from Connecticut to Texas. My parents’ parents must have been very sad about this. Did they think, “Texas? What even is Texas?” Did they also think we were fleeing something? My grandparents lived in New Jersey and New York. They’d been born there and then chose to live there and raise their own children there. Nobody even considered moving away. They were immigrants planting roots in a place that mostly accepted them. They worked with their hands and fought in their wars and they rented tiny houses and then saved to buy slightly bigger houses for prices that would make someone buying their first house right now weep openly.
I have old photographs of my grandparents visiting us in Texas from the East Coast, slightly uncomfortable looking in the cowboy hats my parents bought for them and made them wear. But those photographs don’t tell any real story. Everyone before boomers always looked uncomfortable in photographs, like someone was stealing something from them.
I will deliver her to college, just as I delivered her into this world eighteen years ago.
I won’t ever know if my parents’ parents felt slighted by the fact that their children chose to move so far away from them. My grandparents are all gone now and I can’t ask them. But their families were immigrants, I remind myself. And my parents’ parents’ parents moved away from them too, a distance much further than this distance between New York and California. My parents’ parents’ parents’ parents’ let their children move to new countries, new continents. They moved from Russia and England and Ireland and Lithuania. Some of them really were fleeing something.
I know how to buy plane tickets. But I look at the screen and my eyes go blurry.
I try to express the struggle with the Chrome tabs and the cheap flight aggregators to a friend, hoping she will acknowledge how painful this is for me. Instead, she casually says, “Are you booking her a one-way ticket? You’d be surprised at how cheap it is to buy a one-way ticket these days.”
A one-way ticket? She says this and I faint right away. I fall onto the grass of her yard where we are speaking and previously having a normal conversation. I can’t stand back up. The truth is that I don’t even try. When I think about the one-way ticket, I sink into the dirt. I sink so far that the grass grows over me and my friend looks around wondering where I’ve gone and assumes that I was late for an appointment. But I am still sinking deeper into the ground near her feet as the grass grows so tall that someone has to mow it and I am still sinking as they decide that they’re tired of mowing and they get rid of the grass and replace it with mulch. Because California is in a drought anyway. But I’m still down there, not even getting watered now. Still sinking.
So I won’t be buying her a one-way ticket, thank you very much. I need to decide when she will return. Thanksgiving? That seems expensive. But also, I’d gladly not eat for a week or I’d work three extra jobs or rob a bank so that I could see her at Thanksgiving. “Plan the next time you’re going to see her,” an article on the internet about this topic tells me. And so I decide, Thanksgiving.
I practice talking more about the tickets with friends, casually, without falling down and sinking deep below someone’s mulch. I am at an event, a get-together where I am trying to talk to a small group of people even though we all know that at least one of us in this group has forgotten how to do this after a year inside. I complain about how expensive the tickets are as if that’s the real reason I hadn’t bought them yet.
Women are all just people before they become mothers. But sometimes we forget.
“Are you looking for the tickets on Chrome?” a person asks me. I say, “yes,” suddenly afraid that she knows about the three billion and twelve Chrome tabs I have open on my laptop. My secret shame.
“You need to look for tickets using incognito mode,” this person tells me. This woman claims that Google follows us around and sees that we’re shopping for airline tickets and that as soon as we see the highest-priced ticket and go back to the cheaper one, it will raise the prices of that first ticket. This sounds like it could be true, but it probably isn’t. Like how it always feels like Facebook is listening to us because of the ads we see of stuff that we’ve talked about in our kitchens.
Incognito mode seems like a good idea, even if Google isn’t really following us around. As if incognito mode will somehow protect me from something bigger — my daughter leaving and going to college and then maybe never living under our roof again. “Or maybe she’ll live with you forever,” people joke when I lament about the future. And I say, “If only.” My own father says he’d be happy if his daughters lived at home with them forever. Although I suspect that this isn’t really true.
Could I do this whole trip, the flights and hotels, and the drop-off in “incognito mode?” Could I help her bring her suitcases up the flights of stairs in her dorm room with dark glasses and a hat with the brim pulled down? Don’t mind me, I would say to the very cool Gen Z residential advisors helping the new kids move in. I’m in incognito mode.
What am I afraid of, besides the grief, which I have already named? What else can I name? Fear. Terror. In the past few weeks, I have played and replayed the memory of the first night of my college orientation. I ended up at some kind of dance or a party or a party with dancing that was sponsored by the school. I can’t remember who I went there with so I suspect that I went there alone. But I did not leave alone. I ran into a cute kid and we danced and he knew about a real party, a not-sponsored-by-the-college party where there would be more than just dancing. So I left with him to go to this party, swept away by the newness of it all. I was in college! I knew no one here. No one knew me. I could be anything and anyone I wanted to be. There was never a single moment of time in all my life before or since that has ever been so new. Maybe at birth, but who remembers that, all covered in sticky goo like we were.
By the end of that first night of college orientation, I had already started forming who I would be. I was the girl that was making out with this cute boy in front of my dorm and it was at that exact moment (and not a moment before) when I realized that this cute kid wanted to have sex with me. It was exactly as the cartoons portrayed it, a lightbulb in my brain. “Oh.” And I thought, “That’s not what I want. That’s not who I want to be.” So I said something that let him know that I was not going to be having sex with him that night. And he was OK with it and we said goodbye.
Don’t mind me, I would say to the very cool Gen Z residential advisors helping the new kids move in. I’m in incognito mode.
But oh how that night could have ended differently. And now, thirty years later when I Googled this cute kid, I found that he graduated from Harvard Business School and then went on to start a few companies. And I am so happy for him that he had such success. Because I know too many women who have memories of the same kinds of boys not being OK with not having sex after a night of heaving kissing had made them believe that they would. These boys might whine about blue balls or just get mad. Or maybe they’ll just pretend that they didn’t hear you say no or they’ll go so far as to hold you down a little and then pretend afterwards that they didn’t. But that’s not what happened with me and this cute boy. Instead, I remember him as someone who was sorry he wasn’t going to have sex that night, but also fine with it. I want to call him up and thank him for this. I don’t of course. This is not something for which we should go around thanking men. I am not unhinged. I just can’t book these plane tickets.
Because now I worry that despite all the consent education that everyone has had in the 30 years since that night, there’s a real possibility that my daughter might meet a boy who is not so nice. Or a group of boys, a pack of them, a gang. I tried to explain this to her and she tried to explain to me that she knew how to stay in a group of people she trusts. “I know how to kick a guy in the balls, Mom,” she tells me in just the same way she assures me that she knows how much detergent to use when she does her own laundry.
I need to buy those plane tickets. But hear me out: What if I did not buy those plane tickets? What if I locked the front door of our house and didn’t let anyone out. Not her, not her two younger brothers. It worked well enough for the past year, didn’t it? Didn’t we all have fun streaming entire seasons of shows together on the couch, eating meals around the table every night now that everything else had been canceled? But no, they are all ready to get out of this quarantine house as often as they can.
I’ll have to come up with alternate measures. What if I created a fake website that declared that the college my daughter was planning to go to had been forced to close suddenly. I would bring up this fake website on my phone and hold my phone up to her face and say, “Look. I’m so sorry. I guess you’ll have to stay home and try to apply to another college for next year. Or how about the year after that?”
Gap year. Gap year Gap year. Why didn’t she want to take a gap year? Gap years are good for you.
And those plane tickets. California to New York. It can’t be that hard. I will buy those plane tickets today.
Can anyone know what it’s like to send your first child off to college? My friend did it a few years ago and felt grief and loss and I was like, “maybe you should get over it?” I didn’t understand. I don’t expect you to either.
But how does a person get over the loss? This is not real loss. She isn’t dead, after all. I’m just afraid that she could die.
I remember going to the fair when she was, I don’t know, six or eight, and letting her ride the roller coaster that goes upside down. This was one of those scary fairs that travel from town to town and sprout up in a day. They can’t be safe. People die. People have died at this very fair. I read about it in the newspaper. And then we let her ride the roller coaster that goes upside down anyway.
And I remember saying out loud to my husband, “We put them in these five-point harness car seats until they’re eight years old and then we let them ride in a rickety old roller coaster that goes upside down?” And then we let them go to college, where we don’t know if the boys have listened to the consent lecture.
We don’t know if they’re privileged assholes who take what they want because they think it’s theirs. Maybe they will be more like the boy I met on my first night. Probably? Shouldn’t I trust her to know the difference? Shouldn’t I trust boys to be better?
The plane tickets. The plane tickets. I must buy those plane tickets. I must accept that this is the natural way of things. That this is what I raised her to do, to go to college across the country and start her new life and be whoever she wants to be.
And it hurts. Because I did my work. And I didn’t always do it that well, I can assure you. Her brothers absorbed a lot of my attention. Sometimes I didn’t trust her when I should have. Sometimes she lied. Sometimes I lied. I thought the days of parenting her would last for fucking ever.
I’m still a parent. I will always be a parent. Now, I’ll just be a different kind of parent, a parent of an adult who can drive a car, vote, get a tattoo, and buy pepper spray; an adult who still can’t legally rent a car, drink alcohol, or become the President of the United States. But I am no longer the parent of a baby with a baby smell or a girl who doesn’t know how to kick a guy in the balls if she needs to.
I will buy those plane tickets.
This essay was originally published in August 2021 in the newsletter Homeculture.
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