Friday, August 23, 2013

Why it was easier to separate from college-bound daughters than sons

My group. All done with me, but not really.
Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Bernice, whose last two children, fraternal twins, will leave for college in a week. We talked about the difference in how we separate from girls and boys.  To us, maybe to you, there is one.

Last year, after Sam left for his freshman year at Elon, I grappled with the same realization I had when our oldest son left and it was this: I would never again, know him as well as I did living with him every day.

Without the adhesive of daily interaction,  and without the intuitive advantages of shared gender, I would know him less and less. Our communication, always real and spontaneous, might become  something to locate now, like a pulse. Without those  daily glimpses into who he was becoming, I would have to understand him again from a distance.

But how?

If Sam and I spoke a single cross word to each other last August as the weeks closed in on his departure, I wouldn't be able to describe the exchange. I wanted the shortening period with him at home to be harmonious, and it was.  

In contrast, when our daughters were preparing to leave for college a few years ago, despite our close relationships, prickly tension developed between us in early August and didn't abate until after the drop off. Arguments were frequent and pointless, conversations were awkward, doors were closed - hard.  They separated the only way they knew how, which was to force the break. And they did us both a favor.

But, it was just that. Separation.

As my friend and I discussed,  it's easier to separate from a daughter, but not because we aren't close. It's easier because we are both women.  

In the work of getting daughters ready for the world, we're not just supportive, we're coaches. We've played this game.  We've done the girl's life already,  we can commiserate with the myriad emotions of a growing up a girl.

Unique as the events of their lives are to them - getting their ears pierced, finding a first friend, falling in love, getting a job, being accepted at their target college, being accepted everywhere - they are not strange or unfamiliar to us.  They are things we've done, and imagined them doing since the days of baby teeth and first haircuts. Even if we're not alike, we have gender in common. We know our daughters like our own voices.

We can relate to their journey, while we can only observe a boy's. We work harder to align our expectations with who she is and not who we were. We suppress judgement as she does things her way, not ours. We contain the urge to warn her away from things that she must encounter to learn who she is. We allow her time that we ourselves needed to cultivate grace and wisdom. We trust. We believe. We know. We've seen this movie.

It is an entirely exhausting and exhilarating work in progress that lasts for eighteen years before it's over. But when it is, it's not goodbye. Not really.

As chilly as things were leading up to their drop off days years ago,  I knew looking into the faces of my daughters that only one of my roles in their lives was ending. I was not hanging up my mother-of-a-daughter hat, but merely trading it for one better suited to the mother of a woman. With their looming freedom and growth, would come experiences we'd discuss as women who could relate to, and possibly learn from each other. 

But boys? 

"We already don't talk as much," said my friend about the son she'll launch next week. 

I shared two stories with her.

Ally me with my grown up girls
A month ago I invited my oldest son, a journalist, over for tacos and advice. I was to appear on a radio show where I'd talk about something I'd experienced in the community. I was nervous about appearing and knowing he'd understand this first-hand, I asked what he'd done to quell his nerves before his own radio appearances. He had some suggestions that were truly helpful. "Can I listen?" he asked. "Oh, I don't think you have to." I said. "Gotcha," he said, understanding completely.

Two weeks ago, my daughter, a bride-to-be, came home for several days.  We planned her reception seating, we picked up her dress, we had pedicures. We talked about relationships, about marriage, about learning to make decisions as a couple and defending them to others. I asked how I could be her ally and not her critic in her coming life as a new bride. She told me she never wanted to defend herself to me, and I nodded. It wasn't because we're both women that I understood this. I understood because I respect her as a person.

This week, our son will leave for his sophomore year at college.He will likely not be back next summer. There will be internships, chances to work and room with a friend in another city, opportunities to travel, etc.  "I don't know where I'll be," he said, in complete honesty.

It feels like goodbye this time. But the takeaway after a year in the empty nest is this: It's different to mother girls over boys, and it's different to separate from each. But with the distance that follows, and only after they find their independent footing comes an opportunity to be people in their lives as they will be in ours, who understand each other.  It trumps every other role we've had to date, and if we let it, it thins out the weight of goodbye. 

And that, Bernice, is where the difference ends.


  1. As always your post resonates with me.

    Having my son home (he's 21) this summer was a very different experience from summers past. He's become an adult. Our relationship, while still warm and loving, has been changed a bit - he is much more comfortable talking with his father about many things than with me. I enjoyed having him here, but the bit of distance between us was somewhat disconcerting. In many ways I'm now loving him from arm's length - but that's ok.

  2. I sound like a Lipton tea bag but really, I think the further away we stand, the better we see the whole picture. I know exactly what you're saying, and it's clear how you respect the different directions growth takes.

  3. You're so insightful. A pleasure to read. My children are now in their forties. We're close. In fact maybe closer than when they were in their twenties. Interesting how the realtionships change with time.

  4. Sandra, thank you for that sweet compliment and really nice view of your relationships. I'll bet they treasure you.

  5. I can truly relate to this post. My son is in his senior year of college and got married last year and although we are still close and loving, there has been a shift. Un-defined but real.

  6. I have 2 sons, and they both left for college dorms this year. The first one's break was like your daughters'- because of the economy drop, he went to a small college down the street and lived at home. But he's 21 now, the break had to happen, we both are happier he's on his own, even if it is barely an hour away.
    The younger son is 4 hours away. He's launched. It was harder to let him go after his Labor Day weekend visit home than walking out of his dorm room that initial move-in day.