I had no fantasies that my college freshman’s winter break would look much different than her time at home over the Thanksgiving weekend. I quickly got used to the inevitable cycle of appearance and disappearance, punctuated with “what’s for dinner?” texts. Things would be different for her second semester spring break, though. Unlike the synchronized timing of Thanksgiving and Christmas, this vacation didn’t overlap with her high school friends’ breaks. She’d come home for 10 full days, and she’d be ours.

“See ya, Mom,” she said within the first five minutes home from the airport over Thanksgiving and then again in December, dropping her duffel and backpack inches from where we had just entered. This was the first of many indications that when home from college, my daughter would rather spend her time with high school friends, her boyfriend, all while texting and Snapchatting her new friends away at school. While it’s becoming increasingly clear that’s how she wants to spend her time home from college, the truth is I don’t always want to share her. I don’t want the sliver–the thinnest, smallest piece left behind, the one that’s left over after everybody else gets the other parts of her.

Not so long ago, my daughter loved our family togetherness. She would get excited about make-your-own taco night or sharing a hot potato knish at our favorite neighborhood deli. Back then, time wasn’t so sparse; she wasn’t pulled in every direction, forced to choose how and with whom to spend any given hour.

But these days things feel different. With her away at college and my husband, son and me all together at home, there’s been a shift in our family dynamic, in our perspective. She is one of us, of course, she always will be, yet she doesn’t belong to us anymore. While she is away at school doing her thing, we are at home doing ours.

“You guys eat spinach now?” she asked one night at dinner over Christmas vacation. I hadn’t paid attention that our green vegetable preference had switched from harticot verts and broccoli to spinach since she’d been gone. But it had. And she didn’t know about it. I wonder how she must feel knowing we have new likes and dislikes, new favorite things, but then I remember it’s similar to how I feel, about her new life away from home. Eighteen years of knowing my daughter’s favorite foods and meals, the TV shows she likes, the songs on her playlists, the latest book of choice on her nightstand. I’d like to think I know her favorite things these days, but realistically, I know I don’t.

She forgot to say goodbye to my husband and my son over Christmas break. And they forgot too. The night before was The Bachelor season premier. “Can I have some friends over?” she’d asked. “Of course,” I said, forgetting it was a school night for my high schooler, a work night for my husband. The girls stayed up late, long after the episode was over; I could hear their muted voices and giggles from upstairs, traces of light from under my closed bedroom door. They wouldn’t see each other until the end of the school year, their spring breaks didn’t overlap. Four months is a long time to go without seeing someone you care about, someone you love.

But we’d have her for the whole of spring break, which wasn’t too far away. We’d pick up where we had left off before September’s drop-off, before we had to re-adjust to an odd number at the dinner table, before time together came in bits and pieces, before she was gone.

And yet, it was not meant to be. It was during our 40-minute ride to the airport at the end of winter break, after we stopped at the high school so she could meet her brother in the lobby for a belated goodbye hug, and then again at my husband’s office for a father-daughter embrace, when she said, “A bunch of my sorority sisters are going to Miami over spring break? Can I go?” I felt an aching maternal stillness. It reminded me of how I felt after the college drop-off, looking out the oval window as the plane ascended, wondering where my little girl was, feeling like I had just left the most important part of me somewhere else.

It is the ying and yang of motherhood, I suppose, the inevitability of a child’s appearance and disappearance, of capturing beauty and then watching as it flies away.

Who am I without my kids? I am a mother, always, and we are a family, but this stage of motherhood–with one away at college–makes me realize that with every push and pull there is more permanence; with each tug, there’s a further inching apart, an irreversible distance that separates mother from child.

“My daughter is coming home for the first half, then meeting the girls in Miami for the second half,” one of the mothers of my daughter’s college friends told me last week at a party. “It’s perfect, half and half.” Mine is visiting her boyfriend in Iowa first, then meeting up with her friends in Florida, I told her.

Two halves make a whole. This time, there wouldn’t be a sliver leftover.

My daughter is not coming home for spring break. Maybe I set my expectations too high, thinking she’d want to come home to the smell of homemade banana bread and challah french toast, to cuddle on the couch in front a fire, to sleep wrapped in the cozy lavender and gray comforter on her full-size bed. But one, I realize, does not necessarily replace the other. She might truly love all of these creature comforts of home, but right now her focus is elsewhere, it is on herself, her new life, and for the most part, it does not include us.

One by one our children separate from us, then the family regenerates, continuing on in a new and different form. I never thought our family of four could feel whole without my firstborn in our daily routine. But sometimes it does. At the same time, nothing compares to the surprise sound of an incoming FaceTime call, when my daughter’s face appears on my screen, her oversized hood framing the rosiness of her cheeks. For just a few minutes mother and daughter catch up on the walk back to the dorm after class, before she disappears again.

Randi Olin is a writer, editor and mother to two. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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