Today I sent my first son off to college. Everyone talks about how hard this is.  Michael Gerson summed it up well in his recent column in the Washington Post when he said:

This was the general drift of my thoughts as my wife and I dropped off my eldest son as a freshman at college. I put on my best face. But it is the worst thing that time has done to me so far. That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value most.

We know it’s coming.  We try to be prepared.  But our kids grow up and become their own people over time, whether we’re ready or not.  My son is a warm and special guy.  He’s honest, and loving, and thoughtful.  He has two terrific room mates, including a young man from Egypt I hope will come home with us at Thanksgiving.  He’s at a great school, and he’s going to have a great year, I know it.  All of that is cause for joy.  The bittersweet part of lies elsewhere.

Part of this separation is about remembering how much fun college was and how much I miss that time of exploring new ideas and that being about my only real responsibility for a few years.  I wish I had explored even more.  Of course, I can do much of this on my own now, but getting all your friends to talk about the book you just read or the geeky idea you just had is a bit different from sharing this same experience with a group of peers as you discover the world as proto-adults together. Part of the separation pain is realizing that your kids are grown and need you less than before.  Even when he got his driver’s license, it took time and was  a gradual process towards being independent.  It took time before we were willing to toss him the car keys to go run errands and do his own thing.  By contrast, this one day separation and moving him out of our house and into his dorm feels more like a surgical amputation of the apron strings.  It’s something that needs to happen, and we know had to happen, but it seems abrupt.

To be honest- I’m not sure I would ever have felt ready to do this without tears.  As I fell asleep last night, I cried as I thought of the curly red haired toddler who is now a grown man and on his own.  He can handle it- I have every confidence in him-I’m just not sure I’m really ready for it. That’s the push-pull of parenthood, of course.  You get to raise new people, and help shape them into people you love and want to hang out with- people you love sharing holidays with, picking out special surprises and gifts for, just to see the look of joy on their face- people you feel lucky to know for all their excellent qualities, even if you probably spent too much time criticizing the silly things like laundry on the floor or failure to put their shoes away when they were in the house.  (I defend my actions in the name of making him a better room mate, but the guys in his dorm will be the final arbiters of my success or failure on that front.) But then you have to let go and let them live their lives, make their own mistakes, and enjoy their own successes, while becoming more background characters in their narratives rather than the central characters they have been in ours.

I have absolutely loved every second of being a mom.  I wish I could rewind time and do it all again.  With all the amazing times come a bit of bittersweet pain, like this.  It will be okay, with time making it slightly less painful.  But I will always treasure every moment- from that funny, adorable young baby and boy to the man he is now, and be forever grateful to have had a part to play at all on his stage.